Are Some Votes Worth More than Others?
You’ve heard it before, “we’re all equal but some of us are more equal than others.” Perhaps you might be telling yourself that the great equalizer is voting. You know, when you’re voting for the president one vote one person means all of your votes are worth the same. But, surprise surprise, nothing is fair. Thus, some votes are actually worth more than others in the eyes of the Electoral College. But how does that work? Are some votes worth more than others?
The Electoral College
Before we get into it, we should do a preface of the Electoral College. When you’re handling a presidential election, your vote is essentially abstracted through the Electoral College. Each state is assigned a number of electors, loosely by population. For example, the population juggernaut of California is assigned 55 electors, with a population around 39.5 million, compared to Wyoming’s seemingly paltry 3 electors to a population of 570 thousand.
When a presidential candidate, theoretically, wins the popular vote of a state, they (theoretically) get all of the electoral votes from it. Maine and Nebraska are exceptions though. Do note that an individual in the Electoral College can decide to vote counter to what their constituents say. It’d be a really bad idea for them, but there’s nothing stopping them from doing so.
Further Reading: What Is the Electoral College?
If you do some math, you may find that some numbers don’t crunch out right. If you take the number of electors a state has and divide them by the state’s population, you have how many “Electoral College votes” your vote is worth. In theory, these ratios should all be the same, as all out votes are equal.
But it turns out a Wyoming vote is worth about 3.6 times more than a single California vote using this method.
A University of Washington mathematics professor decided to do some math after the 2016 presidential election. He basically took the number of electors a state had by the amount of votes cast in that state (to account for the fact that states have different voter turnouts). He then divided that ratio by how much the “average American vote” was worth in comparison to the Electoral College. If you were curious, he determined that, on average, one of our votes was worth about 1/4,000,000 of a single elector’s.
In case you were wondering, Wyoming came out to be worth the most, and Florida the least. By a factor of almost 4! So yeah, one Wyoming vote is worth about 4 times more than one from Florida. Don’t tell Florida Man.
Oh, in case you were wondering, only a single state lined up with the average in a 1-to-1 ratio. That was Louisiana.
Turns out, even electoral votes aren’t distributed equally. If you take the American population (about 328 million) and divide it by 538 (number of electoral votes), it turns out that one elector’s vote represents about 610 thousand people. With a population of about 11.7 million, a state like Ohio would be owed 19 electoral votes. They get 18. Take Rhode Island as well, with a population of about a million, they should get about 1.64 electoral votes. Round up to 2 or down to 1 it doesn’t matter, because Rhode Island has 4 votes in the Electoral College.
That’s because states are given a mandatory minimum electoral vote count, each state gets 3 as a minimum.
Math Isn’t Everything
Of course, intuitively, you’ve probably figured that Florida having the least valuable vote doesn’t make sense. It’s a swing state, after all. Here’s where things get screwy.
The base argument in favor of the Electoral College is that the Electoral College prevents massive states like California into dominating elections. A smaller state, if afforded a number of electoral votes by their actual population, would basically be meaningless. Thus, presidential candidates have to pay attention to smaller states.
Except that’s not what ends up happening. In terms of money spent and actual presidential visits on the campaign trail, candidates focus on like… 4 states.
Here are the 4 from 2016. You can see a bigger list here.
- North Carolina
Why Focus on So Few States?
If you haven’t noticed, all 4 of those states are swing states. Because the Electoral College is a winner-take-all system, winning a state by 1 million votes is exactly the same as winning it by just a single vote. So states that basically always vote blue, like California, have no reason to be visited by presidential candidates. A blue candidate is assured those 55 electors, while a red candidate would have to fight too hard to take the state, and it’s simply more efficient to redouble their efforts elsewhere. The same applies to blue candidates trying to sway states that always vote red. Just isn’t efficient.
So presidential candidates simply don’t campaign in states they know they will win or lose. Instead, they focus on swing states so they can win all their electors by just a couple votes.
So it turns out, presidential candidates focus most of their efforts on the interests of a few swing states.
With the most electoral votes and the most presidential visits, Florida’s probably the most important state. Maybe do tell Florida Man.
Fun fact: it’s possible to win the Electoral College with less than 20% of the popular vote if you win the following 40 states by 51% and lose the other 10 by 100% of the popular vote.
- Washington DC
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- Rhode Island
- New Hampshire
- West Virginia
- New Mexico
- South Carolina
- New Jersey
Know your Electoral College? Here are some electoral maps. It’s telling that the url is just “Florida” three times.