Courtesy of M.E.J. Newman

How The Electoral College Screws Over People Of Color

July 14, 2016 / by / 2 Comments

Sometime on or before November 8, 2016, tens of millions of Americans will cast their votes for President of the United States. Results will be collected, networks will declare a winner, and one candidate will be deemed the President-Elect.

Then, sometime in December, the electoral college will actually elect a President.

That’s because as we learned in 2000, the popular vote doesn’t actually determine who wins the presidency. All that matters is getting a majority of the 538 electoral votes up for grabs on a state-level winner-take-all basis. And while much attention has been given to the possibility that the winner of the electoral college vote will not be the winner of the popular vote (as happened in 2000), it’s rarer to hear discussion of how each state is awarded its electoral votes.

Theoretically, electoral votes are given out proportionally, using congressional districts as a way of ensuring fair distribution. Each state gets one electoral vote for each of its congressional districts, as determined by a census count every decade. Then each state gets two more electoral votes, so every state has as many electoral votes as it does representatives in the two houses of Congress. One electoral vote for each Congressman and one electoral vote for each Senator. Simple enough, right?

The result of this allocation process, however, is a system in which smaller states have more electoral votes proportional to their population than larger states do. And according to an analysis completed using population and state-level racial demographics data from the 2010 census, that’s resulted in people of color having a disproportionately small voice in the electoral process.

Here’s how we got there:

First, we looked at which states benefited most from the two additional electoral votes that are given to each state. To do this, we compared the percentage of the national population that lived in each state with the percentage of electoral votes that were allocated to that state. For example, only about .18% of the United State’s population lives in Wyoming, but about .56% of the nation’s electoral votes come from Wyoming. That means that Wyoming has about three times as much influence in the election outcome as it would in a purely proportional system, represented in the “EC%/Pop%” (as in, Electoral College Percentage divided by Population Percentage) column below.

Electoral College power by population


  • Population: state population, per 2010 census
  • Population %: percentage of U.S. population in the state, per 2010 census
  • Electoral Votes: number of electoral votes each state has
  • Electoral College %: percentage of all electoral votes each state has
  • EC%/Pop%: percentage of all electoral votes each state has divided by percentage of U.S. population in the state, per 2010 census

Next, we ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia by the share of the population that is non-white, and called this ranking “POC % Rank.” Hawaii, where more than 73% of residents are people of color, ranked first and Maine, where just 5.1% of residents aren’t white, ranked last.

U.S. States by proportional non-white population


  • White Percent: percentage of the state’s population that is non-Hispanic white, per 2010 census
  • POC Percentage: percentage of the state’s population that are people of color, per 2010 census
  • POC % Rank: where the state ranks compared to other states when comparing how high the percentage of people of color

Then we compared our ranking of the states that benefit most from the electoral college’s allocation system (which we compiled in our first step and call “EC Advantage Rank”) with our ranking of states by share of the population that is non-white.

What became readily apparently was that the states with the fewest people of color were the most likely to have disproportionately more power in the electoral college. In the image below, which lists the 15 states that benefit the most from the electoral vote allocation process, the states whose “POC % Rank” — reflecting where those states fell in a ranking of the states’ percentage of people of color — cell is highlighted in dark red are the five states with the lowest percentage of people of color. The states whose cell is bright red are in the top 10 whitest states, and the states whose cells are in pink are in the top 20 whitest states. Basically, the redder the cell is, the whiter the state is, and the higher the EC Advantage ranking, the more disproportionate the state’s electoral power is:

U.S. states by electoral power and proportion of non-white population


  • EC%/Pop%: percentage of all electoral votes each state has divided by percentage of U.S. population in the state, per 2010 census
  • POC % Rank: where the state ranks compared to other states when comparing how high the percentage of people of color
  • EC Advantage Rank: where the state ranks relative to other states when comparing percentage of all electoral votes each state has divided by percentage of U.S. population in the state, per 2010 census

All in all, of the 15 states that have the most disproportionate power in the electoral college, 11 are among the 20 whitest states. In other words, states with lots of white people are more likely to get extra electoral power.

Moving beyond the 15 states that benefit most from the electoral college, the trend is clear. States that have more people of color get proportionally fewer votes than they should, while states with more white people get disproportionately more votes than they should:

Electoral College advantage versus proportion of non-white population

I should pause here to note that the relationship between benefiting from the electoral college’s allocation process and the percentage of the population that is non-white is not perfect. As you can see both from the chart and the scatterplot above, three of the 10 states with the most non-white residents also benefit from this advantage. But it’s worth pointing out that the three in question — Hawaii, Alaska and D.C. — are inherently unique as states that are either not in the lower 48 (Hawaii and Alaska) or is a district that is not a state at all. If we limit this count to just states in the continental U.S., Delaware and Nevada would be the only states in the top 10 by electoral college advantage that aren’t also among the 25 whitest states.

And although correlation does not imply causation (please repeat that in your head five times), in a nation in which people of color already face significant obstacles to voting, it’s a cause for concern that states with larger non-white populations have less power in the electoral college.

Note: The cover image of this article comes from Professor M. E. J. Newman’s cartogram of the relative electoral college power of the states as they voted in the 2012 presidential election, representing “the effects of the electoral college by scaling the sizes of states to be proportional to their number of electoral votes.”

  • toto

    In the current system, the handful of battleground states are the only states that matter in presidential elections. Campaigns are tailored to address the issues that matter to voters in these states.

    Safe red and blue states are considered a waste of time, money and energy to candidates. These “spectator” states receive no campaign attention, polling, organizing, visits, or ads. Their concerns are utterly ignored.

    The influence of ethnic minority voters has decreased tremendously as the number of battleground states dwindles. For example, in 1976, 73% of blacks lived in battleground states. In 2004, that proportion fell to a mere 17%. Just 21% of African Americans and 18% of Latinos lived in the 12 closest battleground states. So, roughly 80% of non-white voters might as well have not existed when there were 12 battleground states..

    The National Popular Vote bill has been endorsed by organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, FairVote, Sierra Club, NAACP, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, ACLU, the National Latino Congreso, Asian American Action Fund, DEMOS, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG, and the Brennan Center for Justice.

    The bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


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