Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in November by at least 2.7 million votes, but later this month a few hundred people will elect Donald Trump president. Thanks to the Electoral College, the 2016 election will mark the second time in this young century that a Democratic candidate has received more votes yet lost the presidency. Little surprise, then, that Democrats are calling the Electoral College itself the problem.
At a forum convened by US representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) this week, critics backed a nationwide popular vote for president, arguing that the Electoral College disproportionately diminishes the power of votes from high population areas. By that same calculus, votes from sparsely populated, mostly rural states count more. In 2016, for example, based on the votes cast and the electors by state, a vote in Miami, Florida, counted about a quarter as much as a vote cast in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
How does that math work?
The Constitution gives every state two electoral votes in addition to the number of House members allocated to each state by population. As a result, a small state like Wyoming–population 584,000–gets three Electoral College votes. But that guaranteed minimum works out to much more Electoral College voting power per resident in small states compared to larger states. Divide the number of electoral votes by the votes cast in Wyoming, and you get a figure around four times what you get when you do the same arithmetic for Florida.
What’s more, population growth tends to outpace Electoral College representation, because the system allocates votes based on the once-a-decade Census, and populations can change a lot in 10 years. Even then a state doesn’t earn a new electoral vote these days until it’s gained approximately 700,000 new residents. A state or metropolitan area can add hundreds of thousands of new votes without gaining any greater Electoral College representation. The number of voters effectively undercounted by that discrepancy in the five most populous states is 640,000; that’s more than the total voting population of six small states.
Finally, because urban centers and their suburbs are where the majority of nonwhite Americans live, that disparity means the Electoral College system undervalues the votes of people of color. That imbalance will only increase as migration away from rural areas to cities continues.
In the sweep of American history, this is Alexander Hamilton versus Thomas Jefferson flipped on its head. The Framers designed the Electoral College to make sure that smaller states were not ruled by the tyranny of the majority. Today, rural voters wield disproportionate Electoral College power compared with population centers, while cities preach decentralization as a way of keeping a check on the executive branch.
“The votes of my constituents count a third of the votes of a Wyoming resident,” said US representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California) at Conyers’ forum. “The majority are being ruled by the minority.”
Browner Electorate, Whiter Electoral College
More than half US cities are majority nonwhite, and Latinos represent the largest group of nonwhite urban residents, according to the Brookings Institute. Slightly more African-Americans, meanwhile, live in the suburbs than in city centers. Overall, the US population is becoming less white and population growth in cities outpaces that of rural areas.
As a result of these demographic trends, political scientists say the urban vote will increasingly carry less proportional weight in the Electoral College. By that same math, whiter states will become more disproportionately powerful in presidential elections. In practice, that means votes from large states with sizable nonwhite populations like California count less in presidential elections than those from small, predominantly white states like New Hampshire. “If you’re a person of color in California, you’re screwed,” says Stanford University political scientist David Brady.
At the forum, critics proposed two different ways to sink the Electoral College: abolition by constitutional amendment or an agreement among states that their electors will side with the candidate who wins the national popular vote. But the chances of either happening are slim to none, since the party that has now benefitted twice from the Electoral College system in the past 16 years controls both Congress and the White House (not to mention a majority of state governments).
“That’s how we pick every governor. A governor is a mini-president,” said Harvard historian Alex Keyssar at yesterday’s forum, arguing in favor of a presidential popular vote. “It works for every governor. It could work in America.”
With the political likelihood of any real Electoral College reform virtually nil, cities are trying to take power into their own hands in other ways. While the Electoral College system works against cities in terms of value per presidential vote, their burgeoning populations give them a greater cultural influence that some hope will act as a counterweight to a Trump administration pledging to roll back progressive gains.
“Cities can, and do, have a greater impact on culture, in part because of density and in part because most people in the US now live in or near cities,” Keyssar says. “But I don’t quite see that counterbalancing the political power that accrues to small states.”
So far, the moves have been symbolic. San Francisco, unsurprisingly, wasted little time in pledging to uphold its progressive agenda on women’s rights, racial equality, universal healthcare, religious freedom, and immigration, among other issues. The country’s biggest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, have vowed to work together as “sanctuary cities” despite the president-elect’s threat to cut federal funding if they do not assist in his plan to deport undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, Obama administration officials have said they are counting on local efforts to protect their criminal justice reform legacy during the Trump era.
“I think there may be a great adventure about to take place where you have the cities threatening to unite and Trump threatening to cut off their funding,” says Stanford historian Jack Rakove, who also spoke at the Electoral College forum.
The risks to cities are very real: namely, that Trump’s administration could cut funding for everything from school programs to infrastructure–all the things that urban residents rely on. Even then, the sacrifices cities make in the name of resisting presidential power may not be enough. For eight years, Republicans accused the Obama administration of executive overreach. Now its Democrats warning of too much power in the hands of one president–a president that this time around most voters didn’t even choose.