Californian Votes Have More Power Than Most

  • Essay 2 response for PS 1010, Wayne State, Fall 2012.
  • Example of teaching mechanism: compare your essay to mine.
  • Niche audience: new institutionalism, rational choice researchers.

Article: Lawrence D. Longley and James D. Dana.
“The Biases of the Electoral College in the 1990s.”
Polity, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 123-145.

My Analysis: The problem with the Electoral College (the legal vote structure for presidential elections in America) generally begins with an understanding of the bias it creates, or the distortion of the popular vote for President, which “will always provide an imperfect reflection of the popular vote for President” (124). In short, a democracy should enforce equal voting power to all denizens, but the Electoral College creates systematic biases that give some voters more power than others. This essay discovers who disproportionately benefits from the Electoral College in America and also affirms who is disproportionately at a disadvantage. In addition, this essay explains who would gain and lose “voting power” if the Electoral College operated under different rules (124).[i]

The current Electoral College immensely benefits voters in large states because whichever presidential candidate wins the majority of votes in any particular state does receive all the electoral votes.[ii] For example, Californians wield two and a half times more voting power than fellow Americans from the least advantaged state.  In fact, “45 of the 51 ‘states’ [include District of Columbia] have less than the average relative voting power…and six states—the six most populous states—have greater than average relative voting power” (130-131). The 6 states are California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, respectively (Table 1, 131). Thus, the Electoral College creates patterns of inequity in a country that inspires democracy, which the authors measure according to the variance of the probability of each citizen-voter in affecting the election outcome. American voters living in states “with between 3 and 21 electoral votes are relatively disadvantaged by the electoral college in the 1990s” (134).

But what if the Electoral College changed to “The Proportional Plan”? Longley and Dana find that if the electoral votes (based on the number of U.S. House members + 2 (Senators)) were proportionally distributed along the lines of popular vote within each state, then the system would result “with a unidirectional bias favoring the smallest states” (135, italics in original). This is because the smaller the state, the more voting power is allocated to each voter in that state compared to voters in larger states. For example, a voter in Wyoming would have 2.638 times voting power than a voter in California. The authors make it perfectly clear: “The proportional plan…is not a ‘compromise’ reform plan; rather it is, like the present electoral college, an inherently inequitable electoral plan for determining the President” (135).[iii]

The “Direct Vote Plan” is the only equitable plan—whereas one’s vote holds the same vote power as any other voter in any other state.

Table 2 clearly reveals who disproportionally benefits and loses under the current Electoral College. First, California immensely benefits from the biases manifested via the structure of the system. In general, urban, Jewish, Hispanic, and foreign born voters benefit. Second, small states (in population) disproportionally have less voting power under the current system. In general, rural, Black, and blue collar voters hold much less voting power under the current Electoral College (139).

Table 5 showcases the “Best Plan,” or likely preference, for regions and groups considered in the former paragraph. The regional preferences are: eastern and southern states would prefer the Direct Vote Plan. Midwestern states would prefer the District Plan. Mountain states would prefer the Proportional Plan. And Far Western States (i.e. California) would prefer the present Electoral College.  The group preferences are: urban, Jewish, Hispanic, and foreign born voters would prefer the current Electoral College. Blue collar workers would best benefit from the Proportional Plan. Rural groups would prefer the District Plan. And Black voters would best benefit from the Direct Vote Plan.

In conclusion, if change to the Electoral College was ever seriously considered, we should expect many different groups and many different regions to hold many different preferences.


[i] “Voting power” is carefully defined (by Banzhaf) on page 128.

[ii] Please note that today, 2012, Nebraska and Maine provide opportunities to split the Electoral College votes.

[iii] In “The District Plan,” the voter in Wyoming would have 3.645 times the voting power of a California voter.

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4 thoughts on “Californian Votes Have More Power Than Most

  1. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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