E-Race-ing the Vote: The Electoral College's Hidden Problem

Having an equal say in elections is, in theory, the beauty of living in a democracy: It does not matter how rich or poor you are, what your race or sex is, or anything else; your vote counts the same as every other person's.
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I recently moved to California, and as I registered to vote, I shrugged to myself that I was now in the state where my vote counted least toward electing the president. With the U.S.'s bizarre Electoral College system, the larger a state's population, the smaller amount of weight each voter has. California, with the country's largest population, has one electoral vote per 677,000 people; Wyoming, with the smallest, gets an electoral vote for every 188,000 people, or about three-and-a-half times the weight per person. This in its own right is a frustrating realization for any big state voter, but then, I took a moment to think: Who lives in California? And who lives in the other most populous states -- Texas, Florida, and New York?

The answer, I realized: an above-average percentage of racial and ethnic minorities. The demographics mean that the Electoral College systematically waters down the power of big state, racial minority voters while bolstering the value of predominantly white, small-state voters. One-hundred-forty-two years after the 15th amendment first granted racial minorities the right to vote, the Electoral College system is still inadequate when it comes to racial justice.
While about 37 percent of the U.S. population is a member of a racial or ethnic minority, that population is not evenly distributed. In the four biggest states -- those in which each person's vote is worth less than in other states -- 52 percent of the population is a racial or ethnic minority; in the 12 states plus D.C. with three or four electoral votes, only 25 percent of people are racial or ethnic minorities. Out of the 33 states and D.C. with 10 or fewer electoral votes -- that is, the states that have the most voting power per person -- 28 are whiter than the national average.

This phenomenon does not exist on its own, but occurs in a society in which many white people in power have tried to limit the effect of the minority vote. Part of that is history, such as the literacy tests that were often required of voters in the Jim Crow era in order to prevent black people from voting. But part of it is shockingly prevalent today, such as recent laws that limit early voting in states like Florida to make it harder for low-income, disproportionately racial minority individuals -- people who have less flexibility in their schedules than wealthier people -- to vote.

Unlike most other institutional racism, I do not think that the current racism in the Electoral College is intentional. The framers of the Constitution had no idea what the racial demographics of various states would be like over 200 years after they set up the Electoral College, or that anyone besides white men would be able to vote in the first place. But that does not make the racism in the Electoral College any less real: By privileging the voters of less populous, mostly white states, the Electoral College takes away power from the large racial minority populations in big states and adds to the existing racial injustices surrounding voting.
In response, it is easy to fall into a colorblind trap: A black person in Wyoming gets the same power boost for their vote as a white person does, so how could the Electoral College be racist? Frankly, Wyoming and most other small states are not home to a large population of racial and ethnic minorities; nearly half of the U.S.'s racial and ethnic minority individuals live in the four most populous states. It's important that the way we count votes be fair for the population as it actually exists.

Having an equal say in elections is, in theory, the beauty of living in a democracy: It does not matter how rich or poor you are, what your race or sex is, or anything else; your vote counts the same as every other person's. But when it comes to electing the president, that's not the system we have.

So long as one type of voter has more say than another, our democracy can never reach its fullest potential.

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