David Ross

U.S. presidential election

The key concept to understand about the United States of America is that it is a group of states first and foremost. The states came first, the country came second. So when it comes to electing a President, it is not a national election. It is fifty separate state elections that occur on the same day. Generally speaking, with two minor exceptions that I will ignore, each state election is a winner-take- all. There are a total of 538 Electoral Votes available. A candidate must get to 270 to win.

Now, whoever wins a state gets that state’s Electoral Votes. A state’s total number of electoral votes is equal to the number of its Representatives in Congress, which are apportioned roughly in accordance to population, and its Senators, which for every state is two. The total number of Representatives in Congress is fixed at 435. Every state gets at least one, but after that, the number of representatives is based on population. As an approximation, it works out to around one representative for every 700,000 people, and there is a re-apportionment following every census, which occurs every ten years in the US. As an example, California had 37.2 million people at the last census. California has 53 Representatives, which works out to one for every 702,000 people. Michigan with 9.8 million people, has 14 representatives, which works out to one for every 706,000.

In general, then, the bulk of the Electoral Votes are representative of the size of the state. It is the allocation of Senators (each state gets two, no matter the size) that marginally causes small, rural states to have an outsize influence on the election. California, with its 53 Representatives, plus 2 Senators, has a total of 55 Electoral Votes for its 37.2 million people. That works out to 1 Electoral Vote for every 676,000 people. For comparison, take the small rural state of Wyoming. It only has 563,000 people. As every state gets at least 1 Representative and all states get two Senators, Wyoming gets 3 Electoral Votes, which works out to 1 Electoral Vote for every 187,000 people. So small states are overrepresented when it comes to Electoral Votes.

In fact, if you take the 15 smallest states (Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Rhode Island, Montana, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, West Virginia, Idaho, Nebraska and New Mexico), on a combined basis they have more Electoral Votes (56) than California, even though the combined population of those fifteen states is less than half (17.6 million) than California.

A candidate could win California by 10 million votes, while if the other candidate managed to get a majority of just 15 votes across those small states, winning each of those small states by just one vote each, that candidate would have more Electoral Votes. That is how the US manages to elect Presidents who do not get the most votes.

Now, as it happens, most of these smaller states are in the US South and Midwest. These are traditional Republican voters. So Republicans benefit enormously from the Electoral College, and that is why the two recent Presidents elected with a minority of the national vote have been Republicans (George Bush in 2000; Donald Trump in 2016).

Why the US has such a system?

The answer lies in the creation of the country. At the time the US came together, the country was brand new and consisted of a handful of states along the East Coast. The founders knew that while the population of the US was concentrated in a few eastern cities (Boston, New York, Philadelphia), the country was going to grow fast as it expanded westward across the continent. Allowing a one person/one vote principle would mean that the people in the east coast cities could always dictate how the rest of the country would develop. A city dweller will have different views about proper government than a settler one system was devised to give the newly settled rural areas a voice in government. In the US electoral system keeps one large population center from dominating government policy.