Electoral College vs. Popular Vote: which States lose out

If the U.S. switches (by changing the Constitution) from the Electoral College to a simple count of the popular vote as a way to choose the President and Vice President, which States gain influence over that choice, and which States lose influence?

In the Electoral College system, each state gets one vote for each Representative and one for each Senator. Then D.C. gets 3 votes, so that’s 435 Reps, 100 Senators, plus 3 for D.C., giving us the figure 538.

The math is simple. California has 55 electoral votes out of a total of 538 electoral votes. So 55/538 is just over 10% (10.22%). That’s California’s influence over the choice of President under the current system. A number of States have only 3 electoral votes, and 3/538 gives us 0.56%. So those States have just over half of one percent influence, compared to California’s just over 10%.

If we switch to a popular vote system, some States gain influence and others lose influence. But the math is a little less clear. Using the 2016 Presidential election and vote count data as of 11/15/2016, 1:36 p.m. ET (data taken from the Politico website, citing the AP as their source), I’ve given each State a total of popular votes cast for President, including minor party candidates, and compared that total to the nationwide total of popular votes. The same simple division also gives us a percentage.

The difficulty with this percentage is that the number of persons voting per State can change. Voter turnout may be up or down nationwide for an election. Voter turnout might be higher, for a particular election, in some States than others. So the influence under the popular vote is an estimate, whereas for the electoral system, it is a hard number.

California cast 9,093,927 votes for President out of 124,748,031 nationwide, for a percentage of 7.29%. That’s down from an influence of 10.22% under the electoral system. Given the voter turnout from the recent election, California would LOSE influence over the choice of President, if we switch to a popular vote system. You could argue that more persons might vote for President under that system, but if the increase in voter turnout is nationwide, the difference in influence might be minor.

How can we characterize this loss of influence of California? Well, 7.29% is 28.7% less than 10.22%. (The spreadsheet uses exact numbers out to many decimal points, but the visible number is rounded to two decimal points.) So the influence of California is down by 28.7%. Other States gain influence, and some States retain about the same influence, plus or minus less than 10%.

I made a spreadsheet for the above data (see below). 26 States lose 10% or more of their voting influence; 15 States gain 10% or more of their voting influence, and the rest gain or lose less than 10%.

Now in order to pass a Constitutional amendment changing to the popular vote system, 38 States would need to ratify the amendment. If 13 or more States refuse to ratify it, the amendment fails. Since 26 States lose substantial influence over the choice of President under the popular vote system, it seems unlikely that such an amendment will prevail.

Strangely, this amendment has been recently proposed by CA Senator Barbara Boxer. She apparently has not done the math as to how much influence over the choice of President California will LOSE under her own proposal. Essentially, she is betraying her constituents by trying to give them less influence over the choice of President.

It seems that, if we had been under the popular vote system, Hillary Clinton, a Democrat like Barbara Boxer, would be President. But then again, each candidate would have campaigned differently if their goal was to win the popular vote, rather than the Electoral College vote. So the assumption that a popular vote system would have been better for Democrats in this election is doubtful. And even if there are more Democrats (or more liberals) nationwide than Republicans (or conservatives), that might not always be the case. It is foolish to choose a system for electing the President based on whether your preferred candidate would have won, in the current circumstance, without consideration of many future possibilities.

We are a union of States. Changing to a popular vote system is a big step away from that union of States. It is a step away from States’ rights. And it results in many States having less influence over the President and his policies. Since Presidential candidates make campaign promises in part to gain Electoral College votes, the change to a popular vote system means that 26 States are likely to receive less consideration in that campaign platform. A popular vote system pushes Presidential candidates away from campaign platforms that address individual States and their particular concerns.

Interestingly, none of the battleground States lose a substantial amount of influence, and most gain influence, over the choice of President. Florida becomes the most important State, while Alabaman becomes the least important.

In the chart below, column B is the number of electoral college votes for each State. Column C is the result of dividing the number of electoral college votes for a State by 538. For example, Alabama, 9/538 = 1.67%. So column C is the amount of influence that State has in the Electoral system.

Column D is how many total votes were cast in that State in 2016 for any Presidential candidate. And column E is column D divided by the total popular votes for President nationwide. So column D is the influence that the State has if the popular vote determined the President. Then column F tells you how much that influence goes up or down if we switch to a popular vote system.


Now since electoral votes are apportioned based mostly on the number of Representatives, which itself is based on the number of citizens residing in the State, you might expect a change to the popular vote system to have little per-State effect. But the influence of the State is based on the number of actual voters, not on the population. So Florida jumps to the head of the line because it’s population includes many retirees. The percent of the population who are too young to vote is lowest in Florida. In addition, young adults over 18 tend to vote in lower percentages than older adults, so a large percentage of young adults also lowers the influence of any State.

Another problem with the popular vote system is that a close election might take weeks to determine the winner. And if the election is very close, a nationwide recount would be unworkable and essentially useless. Recount 125 votes and you can determine a winner with certitude. Recount 125 million votes and the recount error rate might exceed the difference between the top two candidates. In other words, every time you recount the votes, you get a different number, and so you can’t tell who won. At least, with the electoral system, a recount might occur only in one or two States, and ultimately that State’s leaders can decide a too-close-to-call vote.

My opinion is that the U.S. should retain the Electoral College system.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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