The real problem with the electoral college

In six of the past seven quadrennial elections, the democratic candidate for president received a bigger share of the popular vote than the republican candidate did.   Despite this fact, the democratic candidate only won the election in four of them.  In the years 2000 and 2016, the democratic candidate lost the election because of the way electors from the electoral college were apportioned, which is the way presidents are actually elected.   (Except for the states of Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state receives all of that state’s electors.)

2000 and 2016 mark the fourth and fifth times in American history when that happened.  The previous three were in the years 1824, 1876, and 1888.   In 1824 and 1876, no candidate won a majority of electors and, in accordance with the rules laid out in the constitution (or more specifically, the 12th amendment), the presidency was decided by the House of Representatives.   1888 was replayed four years later between the same two candidates and the loser the previous time won the next time.  (And the loser in 1888 was the sitting president so that actually makes 1892 the only time in American history where the main choice was between the sitting president and a previous president, although Ulysses Grant in 1880 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 came out of retirement to seek the presidency under a third party.)

The number of electors in the electoral college is a straightforward calculation: each state gets a total number of electors equal to the number of senators it has (which is always 2) plus the number of Representatives it has (which can range from 1 for our least populous states to (currently) 53 for our most populous state, California).   There are a total of 435 representatives in all of congress.   The 23rd Amendment to the constitution gave three electors to Washington, DC as though it were a state.   Thus, there are a total of 538 electors.  

And therein lies the real problem.  Our least populous state (Wyoming) has a population of about 563,600.   California has a current population of about 39,100,000.  This creates a bit of a disparity.   In the house, Cynthia Lummis (Wyoming’s representative) represents about 200,000 fewer people than any of her colleagues from California.  Thus, the people she represents have more relative clout in the government.   This also means that a vote for president in Wyoming is more valuable than a vote for president in California (or at least would be if Wyoming were actually a “swing state”.)

There have been 435 members of the house since 1911 (although after Alaska and Hawaii joined the union in 1959, this number did go up to 437 for four years before going back down to 435).  Since the population of the country has grown quite a bit in the past 105 years, the House of Representatives has gotten significantly less representative in the process.  

In fact, the current population of the country is nearly 100 times as large as it was when the constitution was first drafted and laid out how the government is supposed to work.  The first congress had 65 members of the house.  Now it’s not even seven times larger.  I’m not saying there should be 6,500 members of congress now (it’d be a logistical nightmare just to find offices for them all) but it seems clear to me that we need to increase the count of people representing us in Washington.   

Now I concede that a part of this proposal is borne of the fact that my home state of Pennsylvania has lost representation in congress after each of the past three censuses because its population growth rate, although still positive, has been slower than the national average.  This, in turn, has made Pennsylvania one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the union.

I don’t know the correct “magic number” of Representatives per citizen.  I should think that even Wyoming needs more representation in congress though.  

When we do that, the number of electors will also go up and become more commensurate with the population.   That could make the citizenry more engaged and maybe, just maybe, events like 2000 and 2016 will be the anomaly and not the norm.  After all, it only really happened once before.  


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