Since the election of 2016, a fiercer battle over the legitimacy of the Electoral College has ensued. A lot of the arguments for getting rid of the Electoral College have ignored an important constituency: conservative rural voters.
I’m for abolishing the Electoral College, so that the presidential vote is truly democratic. But if democracy advocates want to get rid of the Electoral College, they’ll have to present an argument that draws everyone to the table. Arguing that the Electoral College distorts the power of rural areas is mostly false in practice, even if it has elements of truth in theory, and should not be our argument if we want to successfully abolish the E.C.
Many commentators have pointed out that rural states have more electoral votes per person than urban states. The Washington Post is typical in this regard:
The electoral college distorts the popular vote, because small states get more votes than populous states. Each state has the same number of votes in the EC as it has representatives in Congress. Sparsely populated states have a minimum of two Senate seats and one House district, so they have at least three votes. The most populated states have a ceiling, since the number of seats in the House of Representatives does not increase.
That means that even the least populous state — Wyoming, with 586,107 residents — gets three electoral college votes. How disproportionate is that? Consider that California, the most populous state, has 39,144,818 residents and 55 electoral college votes.
That means that in the electoral college, each individual Wyoming vote weighs 3.6 times more than an individual Californian’s vote. That’s the most extreme example, but if you average the 10 most populous states and compare the power of their residents’ votes to those of the 10 least populous states, you get a ratio of 1 to 2.5.
The information presented in The Washington Post is technically true, and in the liberal echo chamber we RI Future readers live in, sounds like a persuasive reason to abolish the E.C. But there are serious ways in which this argument distorts reality, and if we looked more holistically at the issue, we might actually come away with a stronger argument for abolishing the Electoral College that actually appeals to voters across party.
Let’s take a look at the ten least populous states (District of Columbia is also in there). You’ll note that Rhode Island is one of them:
Which of these states is a swing state? Other than New Hampshire, none of these states had an outcome that was seriously questioned (Maine awarded one of its four Electoral College votes to Donald Trump, but three to Clinton, who won the statewide vote pretty solidly).
Just to add to this pattern, let’s look at the next ten least populous states. These aren’t swing states either:
Of these states, only New Mexico and Nevada are marginally worth considering as swing states, though both lean blue. Utah got a lot of press on the cusp of the election when a third party conservative set out to split the Trump vote, but that turned out to be hype.
Even one more level down leads to a fairly un-swingy picture:
Iowa swang unexpectedly for Donald Trump. The rest of these states (and Puerto Rico) have very predictable electoral positions.
At the end of the day, what this points to is how many people’s votes count in the Electoral College. It’s not really urban voters who are discounted, or rural voters who are privileged. Wyoming has 3.6 times as much voting power as California per person, but everyone knows how Wyoming is going to vote, so no one cares.
The idea that states are “rural” or “urban” only partially captures reality anyway. A state like New York, which is quintessentially “urban” systematically discounts its conservative rural voters every single presidential election. A conservative “rural” state like Texas ignores Austin weirdos.
All this is very bad for voters all around. If you live in Vermont, why even bother voting for a Republican? If you live in Idaho, why bother voting for a Democrat? How does the Electoral College empower you as the resident of a smaller state? It doesn’t. It takes your vote away and gives it to a handful of swing states.
One argument that people might make in favor of swing states determining the election is that these states are supposedly moderate. But in reality, Pennsylvania and Ohio liberals are as liberal as anyone else, and their conservatives are as conservative too. If Philadelphia and Pittsburgh show up to vote in an election, then no one’s vote in the middle of the state counts that year. If those voters do not show up in large numbers, then rural voters eclipse the votes of liberals in the state. This leads to a tremendous amount of money being spent working to coax the vote in a very small number of places. When I was a Temple University student, I recall being stumbled upon multiple times between my subway stop and the building I was walking to being begged to register to vote. I have never been asked to register to vote by anyone while I live in Rhode Island.
As one of the smallest states by population (and famously the smallest by area), Rhode Islanders should take up the call to make our votes count. We can change the narrative about the Electoral College. Part of doing that is being willing to see what the “other side” worries about, and being able to message clearly about how a direct popular vote would be better for everyone, rural and urban, conservative and liberal.