The electoral-college conundrum

Another problem haunts the electoral college: There’s no consensus on who benefits from the system. Many, both opponents and supporters, say it’s smaller states. The argument goes like this: Because each state gets a two-vote bonus in the college, relative to its normal allocation of seats in the House of Representatives, voters in smaller states are disproportionately represented, since two extra votes go further in Wyoming (population 579,000) than California (population 39.5 million). But that’s missing the point, according to John F. Banzhaf III, a professor of law at George Washington University who pioneered mathematical analysis of the electoral college’s impact in a major 1968 study.

The question, Banzhaf argues, is not the raw transfer of popular vote to electoral vote, but rather the “voting power” of an individual in any given state. So while a smaller state will have more electoral votes per person than a larger one, the ability of a voter in a larger state to decide a given presidential election will be far larger. Simply dividing population by votes, Banzhaf says, is nonsensical. “Mathematically, that doesn’t make any sense, in the same way you could divide the horsepower of cars by the number of cupholders,” he says.

But Banzhaf acknowledges that his analysis is largely theoretical. The actual electoral situation is somewhat different, since swing states command an outsize proportion of presidential candidates’ time and attention. That doesn’t mean small states are doing any better than their larger compatriots, however. Koza notes that 13 states (and the District of Columbia) with just three or four electoral votes hosted just 52 general election campaign events between 2008 and 2016, of which all but six were in New Hampshire. Nearly 1,000 presidential campaign events were hosted around the country during that period. The reason is straightforward: Six of the baker’s dozen are solidly Democratic, six are solidly Republican. New Hampshire is the lone swing state in the group, and thus the only one to garner any substantial attention from presidential campaigns.

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