Not All Votes Are Equal


Not All Votes Are Equal

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Klaus Linsenmeier and Andrew Eberle

The United States has one of the world’s oldest continuously used democratic systems. The system of government was designed in a much different time. No wonder that the electoral process here has a number of features that are difficult to understand within the modern world of democratic governance. One of these is our Electoral College.

Electoral College

The President of the United States is not chosen through direct election. Rather elections are held in the states, each of which then selects a number of “electors” to cast votes in the Electoral College. The number of electors that each state is allowed to send to the Electoral College is equal to the total number of Senators and Representatives that the state has in Congress. It is a complicated system, but one that has endured for hundreds of years.

Initially this system was preferred for a number of reasons. Small states preferred it, because it gave them increased influence on the selection of the President. As each state was allocated two Senators and at least one Representative, the smallest states would have three votes in the Electoral College. Meanwhile, a state of double the population would only have 25% more electors (as it would be given one additional Representative) – rather than under a popular vote system where it would be given 100% more votes for President. Furthermore, Southern States preferred this system because it allowed them greater clout. Under the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” enslaved people (primarily in the South) were to be each counted as 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of allocating members of the House of Representatives (and therefore also the number of presidential Electors). While slaves were never given the right to vote – and therefore would have had no influence in a popular vote system – the increase in Electoral College votes that the Constitution gave to slave states gave the free populations of those states greater influence than they otherwise would have had. There were also claims that difficulties in travel could make it hard for the average voter to know much about the candidates.

Slavery was abolished nearly 150 years ago, and now we live in an age of instant communication and constant campaigning. It would take a great deal of effort for a voter to avoid any knowledge of the candidates for office. It seems that the only remaining justification for the Electoral College is to increase the influence of small states, in other words to make some voters’ ballots more valuable to candidates than others’. This seems to violate a tenet of our democratic system; “one person, one vote” would have a much different meaning if we understood that some votes were more valuable than others.

Winner Takes All!

In all but two states (Maine & Nebraska), the winner of the state vote receives 100% of the Electors from that state. It does not matter if the candidate won by one votes or one million votes, they get every vote in the Electoral College, while their opponent gets none. This makes it possible that the candidate with a majority of Electors did not receive the support of a majority of voters. This would be accomplished by winning a number of states by very slim margins, while losing some states by large landslides.

Due to apportionment giving unequal representation to less populated states, and the winner-takes-all principle at play in 48 of the states (and in the District of Columbia), there have been a number of instances where the winner of the most votes was not the recipient of the most Electors. Most recently this took place in 2000, when Al Gore won nearly 550,000 more votes nationwide than George W. Bush did, though Bush received five more Electors than Gore. In 2004 we came close to a repeat of this scenario, when a swing in Ohio of less than 60,000 votes (approximately 1% of those cast) to John Kerry would have sent him to the White House with a lead of five Electors, regardless of the fact that George W. Bush would still have lead the nationwide popular vote by nearly 3 million. Prior to 2000, there were two other instances of candidates winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote: in 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden 185-184 in the Electoral College, though Tilden won the popular vote by more than 3%; in 1888 Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, Benjamin Harrison won more Electors: 233-168.

Lots of Noise, but Little Competition

The “winner-take-all” system shuts out minorities and smaller parties, and leads to an unequal representation of the desire of voters. Furthermore, because the majority of states lean consistently toward one party or the other, practically no campaigning takes place there. In 2008 President Obama received 93.4% of the vote in the District of Columbia. The Democrats do not bother to campaign here because for them the election is already won well before votes are cast, meanwhile the Republicans avoid such a hopeless fight. On the other end of the spectrum is Wyoming, which gave President Obama only 33.4% of their votes in 2008. A visit to voters in either of these places would be a waste of time for both candidates. That means that in over 3/4ths of the states, the majorities are so clear that one party practically dominates and a competition between parties – the hallmark of every democracy – is practically non-existent. In those few states where the majorities are slim – so-called “swing states” – candidates fight hard for every vote. This is only the case in about a dozen states, the most famous this year being Ohio and Florida. Here, and almost only here, the candidates are regularly found traveling to countless campaign events, and airing infamous TV ads. During the 2008 campaign, Obama visited Ohio a total of 63 times, while he didn’t visit Wyoming, Maryland, Massachusetts, or any of the 3/4ths of non-swing states practically at all. One of the largest problems with this system is that now campaigns are focused on the issues that are important only in the swing states, while the issues important to any of the “safe states” are rarely addressed.  

The National Popular Vote Compact

The National Popular Vote Compact is an initiative that aims to reform the American electoral system. It will guarantee that all votes are of equal worth. This initiative has the benefit of technically leaving the Electoral College system in place – meaning that there is no need to go through the difficult process of amending the Constitution – while asking states to use their power to grant Electors only to the winner of the national popular vote. The idea of direct, national elections is greatly popular within both parties and among independent voters.

The decisive change is that under this system, all votes will have the same value to candidates during the election. It would now benefit candidates to campaign in all states – even those “safe” for their camp, or “safe” for their opponent – in order to fight for each and every available vote. It is not yet clear exactly what impact this would have on future candidates’ campaign strategies, but it would certainly shift the dynamic away from “swing-state” politics.

What does this mean for third parties, like the Greens? At first glance, very little, though that is not necessarily true in the medium- or long-term. The fact that the major parties are forced to lead truly national campaigns for the first time, is likely to open up new spaces for smaller parties. Their percentage of the vote would be a part of the news coverage and debate during and after the campaign. This could allow third parties greater exposure to voters and could help them gain more seats in state and local governments.

How realistic is this reform?

The Compact enjoys great popularity not only across the whole political spectrum, but also in many of the individual state legislatures. Since 2006, eight states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation enacting the Compact. These nine jurisdictions account for 132 electors, or about 24% of the Electoral College. That is nearly half of the 270 electors that would be necessary to put the plan into effect. Specifically, once those states who have signed on to the Compact represent a majority of the Electoral College votes (at least 270), it becomes active, regardless of the agreement of the remainder of the states or of the federal government. While “interstate compacts” usually require the consent of Congress, it has been held by the Supreme Court that this is only the case when those compacts would encroach on the powers of the federal government. As the power to select presidential Electors was given to the states without any qualifications, supporters of the National Popular Vote Compact hold that congressional consent is not necessary.

The proposal of a National Popular Vote Compact is to do away with some of the irregularities of the American electoral system. It is likely that a few voters will be surprised and frustrated, if the majority of the votes in their state go to one candidate, but their state’s Electors go to another, because the other garnered a national majority. This proposal takes into account the legal and political hurdles of electoral reform and at least has the potential to get the frozen American democratic system moving again. And movement is urgently needed in our out-dated electoral system.  

Klaus Linsenmeier leads the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s North America Office in Washington D. C.

Andrew Eberle is an intern in the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s office in Washington D. C.


Further Reading:

Complete background information regarding the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact can be found at:

Free & Equal Elections is a non-partisan organization dedicated to an open and inclusive electoral process in the United States. It is also the organizer of third party presidential debates.

FairVote is a non-partisan organization working to reform the American electoral system in order to make every vote count.

Vote USA is a non-partisan organization that aims to present information on all candidates for federal office that allows for easy comparisons in order to help voters make informed choices.

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