The Electoral College’s Real Problem: It’s Biased Toward the Big Battlegrounds

The debate over the Electoral College this week is familiar, but off point.

Set off by criticism from Senator Elizabeth Warren, the discussion has often focused on the system’s real but minor bias toward small states, and the system’s intended (by the founders) but now entirely ineffectual role in preventing the “tyranny” of direct democracy.

It largely misses the real reason the Electoral College so often produces results counter to the majority: The winner takes all within most states. You get all of Michigan’s electoral votes whether you win by one vote or a million votes.

There are legitimate arguments to keep the present winner-take-all system, even arguments that today’s progressive opponents of the Electoral College could appreciate. In the 1880s, for instance, it limited the electoral gains that white supremacist Democrats reaped by disenfranchising black voters.

But the Electoral College also brings the risk of anti-majority outcomes — in which the winner of the national popular vote loses the election — for no high-minded reasons at all, as occurred in 2000 and 2016. It even has the potential to worsen the kind of crises it was intended to prevent.

If there’s any argument over the Electoral College that seems to inflame passions on Twitter, it’s about its bias toward small states.

States are awarded electoral votes based on the number of representatives in the United States House, which is essentially proportionate to a state’s population, and on the number of senators, which is not. So California gets two electoral votes from its two senators, and much smaller Wyoming also gets two votes from its two senators. Over all, 81 percent of electors are awarded by population, and 19 percent are awarded equally among the states and the District of Columbia.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president, at a campaign event in Memphis this week. She has called for an end to the Electoral College.CreditKaren Pulfer Focht/Reuters

There are circumstances in which this modest bias can prove decisive: a near Electoral College tie, as in 2000. After falling short in Florida, Al Gore lost to George W. Bush by five electoral votes, less than the net 18 votes Mr. Bush gained from small-state bias. But for perspective, that’s the only Electoral College outcome since 1876 that was within the 20 or so electoral-vote margin for the small-state bias to matter.

The Electoral College’s small-state bias had essentially nothing to do with Donald J. Trump’s victory. In fact, he won seven of the 10 largest states, and Hillary Clinton won seven of the 12 smallest states.

Over all, the Electoral College’s bias toward small states probably cost her a net of four votes — essentially nothing.

If there is a benefit to protecting small states, the Electoral College is not doing a great job of providing it. Big states can dominate small ones under the system, and they have done so at times.

The true quirkiness of the Electoral College comes from how states award their votes, not how many votes each state has: It’s (largely) winner-take-all.

This is the feature that defines the character of American presidential elections. A candidate who narrowly wins the tipping-point states will win the presidency, regardless of the margin of victory in the rest of the country. That means there’s no incentive for candidates to campaign in any noncompetitive state, whether it’s a populous one like California or the opposite, like North Dakota.

The winner-take-all bias that elevates the battleground states overruns all of the other biases. If the big states were close and competitive, the big states would decide our elections — as they did until fairly recently. In 1888, another time there was a split between the popular vote and the Electoral College, the candidate who prevailed (Benjamin Harrison) swept the nation’s largest states — including its largest, New York, by one percentage point.

What’s so interesting is that this defining feature is largely unintended.

It’s not specified in the Constitution. Most states didn’t award their electors on a winner-take-all basis in the first presidential elections, and even today there are two states that do not: Nebraska and Maine, which award some electoral votes by congressional district.

If states chose to, they could devise an electoral system that better reflected the popular vote. They could award their electors in proportion to the statewide popular vote, or to the winner of the national popular vote, as some states have sought to do through an interstate compact.

No states have moved to do this on their own, for the same reason they drifted to winner-take-all in the first place: Anything else dilutes their power and takes votes away from their favored candidates.

The winner-take-all system has essentially nothing to do with the reasons the founders created the Electoral College, like their concern about investing the masses with the power to pick the president. All of the states now award their electoral votes based on the votes of citizens, rather than on the votes of the state legislatures, as many once did.

Just because the winner-take-all system is unintended doesn’t mean there isn’t an argument for it. The main, principled argument for it is that it discourages regionalism and encourages a candidate to appeal broadly throughout the country, rather than to a single region.

Although this doesn’t always work, it sometimes does. The 1888 election again offers a useful example. That year, Democrats won the popular vote by disenfranchising Republican black voters and running up the score in the Deep South, where they won by 70 percent to 26 percent. Republicans overcame that with some narrow victories in big states and more victories over all.

Republicans make a similar claim today about the 2016 election: They argue that Democrats won the popular vote because of their big margin in California, and that the Electoral College properly protected the rest of the country against an imperial California or New York.

But that is not what happened. Mr. Trump’s victory in the Electoral College was mainly because of impressive strength in the traditional battlegrounds, not lopsided and inefficient Democratic strength in their regional bastions. Indeed, Mr. Trump did just as well in his base states — call them Appalachafornia — as Mrs. Clinton did in California.

Mr. Trump’s electoral victory was a product of two factors. One was essentially an accident of state lines. The 2016 results could be flipped just by giving the Florida Panhandle to Alabama and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Wisconsin. It’s not clear that there was anything about the distribution of Mrs. Clinton’s support that inevitably put it at a disadvantage in a winner-take-all system.

The second is that the traditional battlegrounds are whiter and less educated than the country as a whole. Mrs. Clinton’s gains came in well-educated and diverse states that tend to be less competitive, including red states like Arizona, Texas and Utah.

If these trends continue, it’s possible that the dynamics of the 2016 election could reverse themselves. Additional Republican gains among white working-class voters could go largely unrewarded, now that they’ve flipped nearly all of the mostly white battlegrounds. One day, Democratic gains in the Sun Belt might flip states like Texas, Georgia and Arizona.

America today is not as divided as it was before the Civil War or after. But even if the Electoral College is supposed to discourage regionalism, it can do little to erode it once it takes hold, since it offers no incentive for a candidate to appeal to a place he or she can’t win. In fact, there is no reason that Mr. Trump, who has complained about how he did in California, needs to put his name on the ballot there at all.