Most of us were taught in school that the great thing about American democracy is that each citizen’s vote counts the same as any other’s. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, black or white, rural or urban, rich or poor, Protestant or atheist, your vote has the same weight as anyone else’s, no more, no less.
If only that were true.
People who are poor and/or non-white have often faced barriers to even casting a vote. And many Republican state legislatures—apparently convinced they can no longer win a fair and open election—are now creating even more barriers. This is a scary threat to democracy, but that’s not what this essay is about.
Even if you do successfully register and cast your vote, even if your vote is properly counted, your vote can still count less than someone else’s. If it didn’t, George W. Bush and Donald Trump would never have been elected president in 2000 and 2016 despite losing the popular vote by half a million and three million votes respectively. All those people who voted for Al Gore and Hillary Clinton in those years found out the hard way that their votes just don’t count as much as votes cast in smaller states.
The cause is, of course, the Electoral College. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates compromised on this cumbersome device for several reasons. Some feared mob rule flourishing in direct elections. Small states feared being marginalized by big states.
And slave-owning state were worried that their power would be diluted if voters rather than geography were the basis of representation. After all, their large plantations held fewer people than cities, and many of those residents were slaves with no right to vote.
After much argument and compromise, the 1787 convention decided that the House of Representatives would be based on population, with Whites counted as one person each and Blacks as three-fifths of a person. For the Senate, population didn’t matter at all; each state got two senators, no matter how many voters or residents they had. White supremacy was thus a big factor in the creation of the Electoral College—and remains a big factor in its continuation today.
Small states are more likely to have a homogenous ethnic make-up than a large state. Of the 15 smallest jurisdictions with Electoral College votes, only three (Hawaii, Mississippi and the District of Columbia) are less than two-thirds White. Nebraska, Vermont, Montana, Idaho, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Wyoming, Maine and both Dakotas are all at least 84% white. So there is a racial aspect to giving small states more voting power.
But it’s not just race. Small states tend to be more rural than urban and more Christian than non-Christian. Maybe you believe White, Christian farmers should have more say in elections than, say, Semitic, Jewish shopkeepers, but if you do, you should be required to explain your rationale to the folks whose votes you’re weakening.
Think of it this way. If you were a voter in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 2016, your vote was worth 1/85,283rd of one Electoral vote (255,849 total votes divided by three Electoral votes). By contrast, if you were a voter in Los Angeles, California, in 2016, your vote was worth 1/257,847th of an Electoral vote (14,181,595 votes divided by 55 Electoral votes). In other words, a Wyoming voter’s ballot was nearly four times as powerful in electing a president as a California voter’s ballot.
This is the question we should all be asking ourselves: How many Californians is my vote worth? When it comes to the Electoral College, a vote cast in Montana, Alaska or either Dakota is more than twice as powerful as a vote cast in California. Those are all red states, but the same doubling is true for such small, blue states as Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island or New Hampshire.
So where does the Republican advantage come from? How has the G.O.P. twice won the White House in this century while losing the popular vote? It comes from all the states where each vote is worth between 125% and 200% of a California vote: South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Utah, Iowa, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, Nebraska and West Virginia.
If you live in California, you might feel outraged that your vote has been so devalued by an 18th century mechanism designed to protect slave owners and other small-state aristocrats. You might feel the same way if you live in New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina or Virginia, where your vote is roughly equal to a California vote. When you hear conservative scholars nattering on about protecting small states, you might respond, “Why should my vote count for less than another American’s?”
But if you think that’s unfair, turn your attention to the most undemocratic feature of American government: the U.S. Senate. If you voted in 2016 in Fairbanks, Alaska, your vote was 1/311,441th of the vote for a senate seat. If you lived in San Francisco that year, your vote was 1/12,253,170th of the vote for a senate seat. In other words, the Alaska vote was a whopping 39 times as powerful as the California vote. If Wyoming had had a senate race in 2016, a vote there would have been worth 45 California votes. And if we measure by total population rather than actual voters, a Wyoming senate vote is worth 68 California votes.
As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has pointed out, the resulting Senate is split 50/50, even though the Democratic senators (including the two independents who caucus with the Dems) represent 185,541,791 people, which is 56% of the population and 41,549,808 more people than the Republican senators. (Here’s an idea for weakening the Senate filibuster without eliminating it: Pass a law that any group of senators representing 53%, 55%, 57% or 60% of the population can end a filibuster).
But rather than thinking in terms of parties, think it in terms of individual voters. In 2016 (the last year California had a senate race) a senate vote in Kentucky was worth six and a half California votes. In Utah, it was 11 California votes. In North Dakota, it was 36 California votes. When politicians and pundits defend the Senate system, they’re telling people in California (as well as those in Texas, Florida and New York) that it’s proper for a North Dakota vote to be 36 times as powerful as yours. Are you okay with that?
If you’re not happy with that situation, there are multiple solutions to the problem, but all these remedies face a steep uphill climb. You could amend the constitution to eliminate the Electoral College and institute a winner-take-all national election. Another amendment might vary the number of Senators from each state—either totally based on population or somewhat based on population.
You could divide California into 68 small states with the same population as Wyoming, and each of those new states would have two senators and one representative, just like Wyoming. Or you could divide California into six mid-sized states with the same population as Indiana, and each would have two senators and nine representatives.
These goals are nearly impossible to accomplish, for the simple reason that the states who benefit from the current, unequal arrangement have enough power to prevent any such change. To create a new state, for example, a territory must submit a request, a state constitution and the approval by popular plebiscite to congress. If the request involves territory from a preexisting state, that state also has to agree. Then the request has to pass both houses of congress and be signed by the president. The last states added to the nation were Alaska and Hawaii in 1959.
Nonetheless, there’s an active campaign to add the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as new states, giving each two senators, one representative and three Electoral College votes. The Biden Administration is already pushing these changes. Further down the line, perhaps the example of D.C. statehood would allow other megacities such as Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio and Brooklyn to become separate states.
The U.S. The Constitution gives each state the power to choose how their members to the Electoral College are chosen. Maine, for example, divides its four votes among two at-large votes and one for each congressional district. Nebraska uses a similar system. But what if a state pledged to give all its Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote, no matter how that candidate did in that particular state?
That’s the strategy of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It only goes into effect once states with 270 combined Electoral College votes (enough to win an election) sign up. So far 11 states and the District of Columbia, representing a total of 172 E.C. votes, have passed laws agreeing to this system. They need states representing 99 more votes to join up—and then it will need to survive the inevitable court challenges. But right now it’s the most plausible path to restoring majority rule to the United States.
Just because it will require a long, difficult struggle to end these inequalities in American democracy, that’s no reason to give up. The sooner we start, the sooner we will finish. In the meantime, we should keep these anti-democratic structures in mind whenever small-state right-wingers pontificate about “the will of the people” or claim that “the voters have spoken.”
Conservatives may control 50 seats in the Senate, but those 50 senators represent only 44% of the population. Donald Trump may have been president for four years, but he received three million votes less than Hillary Clinton. Let’s keep in mind what really is the will of the majority and exactly what the people have spoken.