Smaller states get bigger say in Electoral College

That's unlikely to change even as Clinton widens popular vote lead

Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States, March 28, 2016.     REUTERS/Jim Young
Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States, March 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

A growing number of Americans — largely those who backed Hillary Clinton for president — are expressing frustration with the Electoral College after it again evinced victory for the candidate who lost the popular vote.

As Clinton’s popular-vote margin over President-elect Donald Trump swells to more than 2 million — breaking the record for a candidate who will lose at the Electoral College when electors vote Dec. 19 — some voters, analysts and political scientists are arguing for rejection the winner-take-all approach. Some propose ditching entirely the constitutionally-established mechanism America’s founders created for choosing presidents.

But experts and analysts across Iowa say that’s unlikely to happen and perhaps shouldn’t, especially when considering the best interests of rural states.

“It prevents large states like California from running roughshod over the interests of smaller states like Iowa or Wyoming,” said Hans Hassell, assistant professor of politics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon. “It makes presidential candidates more likely to campaign in Iowa. If that wasn’t the case, they would spent all their time in New York City and in California and in Texas.

“The Electoral College really provides an option for us in Iowa to make a difference,” Hassell said. “And, as an Iowan, I think that’s important.”

As outlined in the Constitution, each state is represented in the Electoral College by its number of congressional representatives, plus two for both its senators.

The number of congressional representatives awarded each state is based on population determined every decade by the Census Bureau.


Because Iowa has four congressional districts, it gets six votes in the Electoral College, making it worthy of a candidate’s consideration.

But, Hassell noted, the Electoral College’s function today is not necessarily what the founders had in mind.

Their aim, he said, was primarily to prevent unwieldy factions from gaining momentum and voting into power someone to the detriment of the larger public good.

“They were concerned about these movements that would sweep up the nation and cause people to take rash action,” he said. “So the Electoral College was situated with the idea that the electors are somewhat refined individuals that are trusted by the population in that particular state.”

These days, Hassell said, “Most of the electors are party loyalists who have some sort of network within the party apparatus.”

Giving up power?

When the elector mechanism was established, citizens were more concerned with state identity — and thus state consensus — than some might be today, said University of Iowa political science professor Cary Covington.

“People now are thinking more as Americans rather than Virginians, for example,” he said.

Because the Constitution assigns to each state a number of Electoral College votes equal to its congressional districts — and thus population — Covington said that part of the equation accords with the “one person, one vote” principle.


But “in contrast, every state gets two electoral votes for its senators regardless of the size of its population, which violates that principle,” according to Covington.

“Each voter in a ‘small population’ state casts a larger share of those two electoral votes than does a voter in a ‘larger population’ state,” he said.

Covington calculated the departure from the one-person, one-vote principle per state by dividing electoral votes by population, and then doing so nationally.

His state-by-state comparison shows, for example, that Washington and Tennessee have per capita shares exactly aligned with the national average. Iowa has an advantage at 114 percent of the national average. Wyoming’s per capita share is more than three times the national average, while California has the weakest share.

“So giving all states two electoral votes regardless of their population means that voters from small population states cast significantly more per capita electoral votes than do voters from large states,” Covington said.

And, without knowing the outcome of a particular election, most people today would say it makes sense for the electoral vote to reflect the popular vote, he said.

“Given the evolution in the way we think about who’s represented in the Electoral College, it makes more and more sense that we should do something to make sure the Electoral College represents the popular vote,” he said. “But how we do that is a whole different question.”

It’s one that doesn’t have an easy answer — or, perhaps, any answer.

“The only way to change it is with a constitutional amendment,” Covington said — which would require approval from 38 states.


“The smallest ones are never going to ratify the amendment that would take away their clout,” he said. “Why would they give up that power?”


Covington said he has spent years defending the Electoral College precisely because it gives voice to the nation’s smaller states.

But, he said, “Given the frequency now with which the electoral mechanism translates the popular vote into electoral votes, we really do need to as a nation recognize that the president is the representative of the nation as a whole.”

Four times in history has a presidential candidate won the popular vote but lost the office, according to U.S. House archives,

In 1824, John Quincy Adams was chosen president by the House after Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but not a majority of Electoral College votes. In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but in a compromise over undecided votes in the Electoral College, the presidency went to Rutherford B. Hayes.

The episodes more comparable with this year’s election were in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland but won the Electoral College, and in 2000 when George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote but beat Al Gore in the Electoral College.

Gore’s popular-vote lead over Bush was about 540,000 votes, compared with Clinton’s more than 2 million vote gap in this election.

Mack Shelley, professor and chair of the Iowa State University Department of Political Science, said the founders — in some sense — created the Electoral College in the image of a medieval rule for picking kings.


“When you think about how the Electoral College works, it’s just about literally like a 12th century council of elders that picks the next monarch,” he said. “I think it was meant to be almost exactly that.”

Except, he said, even in the 1800s, “This was already a dying idea.”

“But we’re kind of stuck with it,” he said. “I think it would take a herculean effort and probably a whole bunch more elections where the popular electoral votes go haywire before anybody would have an interest.”

Since Trump’s victory, several petitions and efforts have emerged to persuade electors to go against their state’s majority — as not all states have laws against it.

But Shelley said he doesn’t that’s realistic.

“These people are picked as electors by the party leadership, and sometimes they actually are party leaders themselves,” he said.

Electors who do so essentially would give up any political aspirations.

“Your career is almost literally dead in your party at that point,” Shelley said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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