VOTING POWER

The math behind senator Boxer’s push to abolish the Electoral College

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

A week after America voted Donald Trump into the White House, California senator Barbara Boxer introduced a bill to abolish the Electoral College, the system by which states allocate votes to presidential candidates. The College, long an unpopular feature of American politics, was decisive in the election of Trump, who lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

The Electoral College is established in Article II of the US Constitution. It gives each state one elector for each member in Congress—both the House of Representatives and the Senate. All electors vote according to the winner of the popular vote within that state. There are 538 total electors, which means any candidate needs 270 to win. Trump won with 290.

Because the number of senators in a state is not tied to its population, voters in some states end up having more influence over the outcome than others. In particular, voters in less populous states, such as Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming, have significantly more power than those in more populous states such as California, Florida, and Texas.

In California, for example, there are about 546,000 voters per elector. In Wyoming there are only 149,000. Thus, an individual vote in Wyoming carries about 3.7 times more weight in choosing who ultimately becomes president. Because less populous states also tend to be more rural, this effectively diminishes the power of urban voters.

Despite being frequently criticized, the Electoral College has never seen a serious challenge. Previous calls to abolish or reform it have had a tendency to evaporate soon after election day.

Trump’s controversial election might be enough to build some momentum behind Boxer’s bill, but, even if it is, the Democrat’s proposal will almost certainly fail. Abolishing the College would require a constitutional amendment. That’s difficult under any circumstance and probably impossible right now with a Republican majority in Congress.

Boxer herself is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, and thus won’t be in a position to push the bill forward. As frustrating as it may be for her fellow Democrats, and for anyone who would prefer more straightforward elections, it’s almost certain the Electoral College will still exist when Americans vote again in 2020.

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