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New York Times Perpetuates Myth that Current Electoral College Rules Help Small States

by Rob Richie, Andrea Levien // Published March 18, 2013

Last week, The New York Times 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 and revealing article, but one that is 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 Americans who live in smaller states. This results, in part, because the quarter of our population that lives in the nation's 31 least populous states has 62 senators, while a full other quarter of the population, which lives in the nation's three most populous states, has only six senators. This incredible distortion contributes to the residents of small states receiving disproportionate attention and federal grants. It is legitimate to question, as Liptak does, why residents of small towns in Alaska and Vermont should be favored over residents of small towns in New York and Texas.

But Liptak is wrong to suggest 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. He's also wrong to suggest that this small state math somehow gives Republicans a partisan advantage.

Let's start with the myth that small states receive any special clout from our current Electoral College rules. This belief is rooted in the fact that every state, regardless of its population size, is entitled to at least three Electoral College votes, two for its two U.S. Senators and one for each congressperson in the U.S. House. As a result of this electoral vote allocation, Wyoming has 192,137 residents per elector, and California has 691,662, over 3.5 times more.

Similarly to other astute analysts, however, Liptak does not account for that fact that states allocate electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Winner-take-all laws negate any simplistic mathematical equations about the relative power of states based on their number of residents per electoral vote. 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 helping to influence voters in the handful of states that matter. Unless a small state is a swing state, presidential candidates will ignore it, just as they ignore the vast majority of other states of all sizes.

We do applaud Liptak for discussing the National Popular Vote plan, as it is promises to be an historic reform drive that will change the Electoral College as we know it. But the National Popular Vote plan in no way "counteracts" 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 presidential elections.

In 2012, for example, 24 of the nation's 27 smallest states received neither a single public campaign event after the party conventions nor 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 a national popular vote, in which every vote is equally valuable, presidential candidates would seek to encourage participation and court voters everywhere, not just in the swing states. You can do all of the simple elector-per-capita math you want, but the fact remains that Wyoming and California were equally ignored by the presidential candidates in 2012, just as they have been in every election for many years. Both are disadvantaged by the current Electoral College rules. The only math that really matters when gauging power in presidential elections is swing state math.

In addition, small states also do not receive any monetary advantage from their status in presidential elections once a candidate is elected. While Liptak's piece shows how smaller states receive more benefits from legislation per capita than other states because of their overrepresentation in the Senate, the same is not true of the executive branch, which focuses its attention on swing states instead. Dr. John Hudak analyzed the apportionment of federal grants by the executive branch and found that swing states received about 7.6% more federal grants and about 5.7% more federal grant money between 1992 and 2008 than would be expected based on patterns in other states.

Furthermore, the fact that Republicans win more states than Democrats in close presidential elections does not give them any special partisan advantage. Liptak's claim that only one of the five smallest states leans Democratic is cherry-picked data. The 13 states with three or four electoral votes (including the District of Columbia, which has electoral votes, but not U.S. Senators) have split evenly between the parties in recent elections, with Democrats winning six of them in every election since 1992 and a seventh (New Hampshire) all but once. In 2004, John Kerry won more electoral votes out of these 13 smallest states, even though George W. Bush won more popular votes in those states.

Liptak cites the fact that if you were to eliminate the Senate electors, Al Gore would have won the 2000 presidential election, but this is only one example, not a pattern. Winning one or two extra big population states completely negates any advantage in small states. If Democrats were to gain a secure handle on Florida and Texas, for example, and hold onto the big states they now dominate, they would win any close presidential election even if Republicans continued to have an edge in more states overall.

The fact is, anyone trying to make partisan calculations about whether the current Electoral College system helps one party or the other is pursuing a fool's errand. In any given election, as we demonstrated in our October blog, one party can have an edge in an election- but which party has the edge varies from election to election. The real problem with the system is the indefensible reality that more than 99% of campaign attention was showered on voters in just ten states in 2012- and that in today's political climate, the identity of those swing states has become increasingly fixed.

Underscoring the fact that small states are not helped by current Electoral College rules is the strong support for reform in small states. Every single state in the nation has had a representative in Congress sponsor or vote for a constitutional amendment to switch to a national popular vote over the past 45 years. In addition, Hawaii, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, all of which have three or four electoral votes, have adopted the National Popular Vote plan, and the plan has passed legislative chambers in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Rhode Island, all states with seven or fewer Electoral College votes.

The myth about the Electoral College and small states is a persistent one, but it's time for our nation's most reputable newspapers and wisest political analysts to get it right. It is wrong to lump the mathematical bonus small states get from having two Senators with the bonus they get from having extra electoral votes; in the Senate, that bonus has a real, practical effect on government policy; in the Electoral College, it does not. The case for a National Popular Vote has nothing to do with balancing out power between big and small states. Instead, it has everything to do with another balance, one fundamental to any representative democracy: one person, one vote.