In a recent interview, former President Obama said that American democracy “is imperfect, but changing that is going to take a lot of effort.”
In the interview, Obama spoke about the fact that the United States doesn’t have a “one person one vote” system. He mentioned Puerto Rico statehood in the context of voting rights.
The disenfranchisement of Puerto Rico would end with statehood, but Obama pointed out that even in the states, some people’s votes have more power than others.
One example Obama gave is that Electoral College electors in the state of Wyoming represent approximately 188,000 voters, while electors in California each represent 677,345 voters. This is about 3.6 times as many voters, giving voters in Wyoming nearly 3.6 times the influence or voting power of California voters.
The table below shows the figures for each of the states. A resident of Wyoming has, as you can see, 3.56 times the voting power as a resident of New York State.
|State||Population||Voters Per Electoral Vote||Electoral Votes||Wyoming Has X Times the Voting Power|
|District of Columbia||601,723||200,574||3||1.07|
The power of the electoral college
This imbalance is based on the fact that voters in the United States don’t vote directly for the president. Instead, each state votes for Electors. These individuals gather for the Electoral College vote in December and place their votes for the president. It is these votes, not the votes cast on Election Day, that determine who becomes President of the United States.
Five times so far this process has led to a president who was not the most popular candidate.
- Election of 1824: Candidate Andrew Jackson received 152,901 popular votes compared to Candidate John Quincy Adams’s 114,023 votes. Jackson only received 99 Electoral College returns, while Adams received 84, neither achieving a necessary majority. The House of Representatives met to select the President, and Adams emerged as the winner with a one-vote margin.
- Election of 1876: While exact vote totals vary, Democrat Samuel Tilden received approximately 250,000 more votes than Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. An electoral commission was established to settle “disputed votes,” and the commission voted 8 to 7 in favor of Hayes on all disputes. Hayes was declared the winner.
- Election of 1888: While exact vote totals vary, incumbent Grover Cleveland received approximately 90,000 more votes, 48.6 percent to 47.9 percent, than his opponent Benjamin Harrison, but lost in the Electoral College. Harrison won 233 electoral votes compared to Cleveland’s 168.
- Election of 2000: George W. Bush won an Electoral College victory 271-266, although his opponent Al Gore won approximately 500,000 more popular votes. Specifically, Gore received 50,999,897 votes while Bush received 50,456,002.
- Election of 2016: President Donald Trump won an Electoral College victory of 306 – 232. Candidate Hillary Clinton, however, won the popular vote by nearly 3,000,000 ballots. Clinton received 65,853,514 votes compared to Trump’s 62,948,828.
The unrepresentative Senate
The uneven power of votes in more and less populous States affects the significance of U.S. citizens’ votes in presidential elections. There is also a big difference in the States’ representation in the Senate.
Just as the Electoral College was designed to keep big states from having much more power than small states, the Senate gives two seats to each state, no matter how many people live in each state. Less populated states currently have two things in common:
- They are more likely to be Republican. That was not the case a century ago, but it is true now. Gerrymandering is one reason for this.
- They are less likely to be racially diverse. For example, Wyoming, where voters have more than three times the voting power of Californians, has 92.5% white residents. 37% of Californians are white.
The Republican “majority” in the current Senate represents 15 million fewer Americans, 153 million to 168 million, than the Democratic Senate “minority.” In the 115th Congress, the Democratic “minority” represented almost 40 million more people than the Republican “majority.”
The Senate therefore represents Republicans far more than Democrats…even though the number of Democrats represented is so much larger than the number of Republican voters represented.
The Senate is also much less diverse than the United States as a whole. Pew Research calculated that 61% of Americans are non-Hispanic whites — but 91% of U.S. Senators fall into this category.
“We have to have an increase in awareness and activism.”
Obama suggested in his interview that the undemocratic overrepresentation of certain groups of voters in the government is a problem to save. His solution: greater awareness and activism.