Major Media Should Stop Perpetuating Myth That Electoral College Rules Help Small States

I wrote this piece with my colleague Andrea Levien.

The New York Times recently published a long analysis by Adam Liptak about the advantages conferred on small states by their outsized representation in the U.S. Senate. It's an important article, but marred by its inclusion of the Electoral College as part of its analysis.

Liptak's overall argument centers on the fact that the U.S. Senate tilts federal dollars toward residents of smaller states. Consider that the quarter of our population lives in the nation's 31 least populous states has 62 senators, while another quarter of the population in the nation's three most populous states, has only six senators. This incredible distortion means that residents of small towns in Alaska and Vermont are favored over residents of comparable towns in New York and Texas.

But Liptak wrongly suggests that reforming the Electoral College with the National Popular Vote plan for president has anything to do with the inequality between small and large states. It is true that every state, regardless of its population size, is entitled to at least three Electoral College votes, (one for each House and Senate seat) and that, as a result, Wyoming has 192,137 residents per elector, compared to the 691,662, residents per elector in California.

But this math doesn't account for that fact that states allocate electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Due to winner-take-all rules, small state math means absolutely nothing to presidential campaigns and to presidents once in office. Instead, one and only one factor governs whether presidential candidates will focus on a given state's potential voters: whether that state is likely to be a swing state in the next election.

With winner-take-all, if one candidate is comfortably ahead in a state -- or, as is the case with some 40 states today, one party is sure to win the state in the next close election, no matter who the candidates are -- then that state's voters are good for only two things to presidential candidates: donating money and influencing voters in swing states. Unless they are swing states, presidential candidates will ignore states of all sizes.

In 2012, for example, 24 of the nation's 27 smallest states received neither a single public campaign event after the party conventions nor were targeted by a single dollar in presidential campaign ad money after Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee on April 11. They were ignored despite their supposed numerical advantage in the Electoral College. In fact, the 8.6 million eligible voters in Ohio received more campaign ads and campaign visits from the major party campaigns than the 42 million eligible voters in those 27 smallest states combined.

In addition, presidents woo states based on swing state status, not population size. Brookings Fellow John Hudak recently analyzed the apportionment of federal grants by the executive branch and found that swing states received about 7.6 percent more federal grants and about 5.7 percent more federal grant money between 1992 and 2008 than would be expected based on patterns in other states.

As a result, the National Popular Vote plan does not "counteract" the excess power of small states. In fact, it does just the opposite, giving voters in small states the attention and electoral clout that they deserve in proportion to their votes. In a national popular vote, in which every vote is equally valuable, presidential candidates would seek to encourage participation and court voters everywhere, working in tandem with state parties trying to win gubernatorial and congressional races.

Underscoring the fact that small states are not helped by current Electoral College rules is small state support for a popular vote. All 50 states have had a representative in Congress sponsor or vote for legislation to switch to a national popular vote over the past 45 years. Hawaii, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, each of which have fewer than five electoral votes, have adopted the National Popular Vote plan, and the plan has passed legislative chambers in eight more states with fewer than eight electoral votes: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Rhode Island.

The myth about the Electoral College and small states is a persistent one, but it's time for our nation's political analysts to get it right. The mathematical bonus small states get from having two senators has a real, practical effect on government policy because of the Senate, not the Electoral College. Rather than balance power between large and small states, the National Popular Vote plan balances influence between a handful of swing states and other Americans, upholding a principle fundamental to any representative democracy: one person, one vote.