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No, the electoral college does not have a "built-in bias" for Republicans
Maximizing electoral votes is just common sense
It’s a refrain that is repeated endlessly. The electoral college has a built-in bias or gives an advantage to the Republican party. It’s been stated by Vox, the New York Times, Slate, the Guardian, and numerous other publications from around the world. Even my beloved Fivethirtyeight and Economist (the horror) have fallen prey to this intoxicating ambrosia.
It’s all bunk.
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When the framers made the Constitution, there were no political parties. The electoral college was created when democrat and republican were lowercase words. What the framers did was create a system that had a small state bias. That is, candidates who win states with relatively small populations can win the electoral college, and thus the presidency, without winning the popular vote.
Currently, the Republican party is better at winning small states than the Democratic party. That’s because Republicans have historically gotten the rural vote and small states are often rural. Note, however, that even this common bit of wisdom isn’t always true. Rhode Island, Delaware, and Hawaii are all small states that are relatively urban. That the Republicans are better at winning small states isn’t luck or bias; it’s because they have created a platform for people who live in those states.
Compare it to a basketball game. Does that team that makes the ball through the hoop the most times win the game? Not always. After all, most of the time a ball going through the hoop in basketball means the shooting team is awarded two points. Other times the same ball goes through the same hoop and it results in three points. And sometimes when the ball goes through the hoop the shooting team is awarded one point. So a team can absolutely make more baskets but not win the game. In fact, it makes sense to prioritize shots that will add the most points, not the most baskets.
Saying that the electoral college is biased toward Republicans is like saying the NBA is biased toward the Golden State Warriors. Both are false. The NBA rules award more points when the ball is made from a far distance. This has been the case since 1979. That Stephen Curry and Golden State took advantage of that rule more than any team before them is a testament to their ability to win a game of basketball, not the result of a bias.
Any presidential candidate is free to tailor his or her platform to the desires of small state residents. Those that do will perform better than those that tailor a platform toward the desires of big state residents. Today that the Republicans are better at winning small states; tomorrow it may be the Democrats.
It’s worth emphasizing that this is not to say that the makeup of the electoral college is fair - and a lot of people lose this distinction. There are good arguments to be had for keeping a geographically weighted system like we currently have or moving to a true popular vote contest that would be similar to what other countries have. That, however, is both beyond the scope of this post and something that is never going to happen. This would require a constitutional amendment, which requires 2/3 of the House and Senate, or 2/3 of state legislatures. Since one party will always benefit from the small state bias, and small states will always benefit from the small state bias, it is hard to see the system ever changing.
There is, however, an alternative solution that is rarely discussed. Part of the reason that a candidate can lose the popular vote but win the election is because of the small state bias. It is not the only reason. The other is that most states award their electoral votes in a winner-take-all fashion. If a candidate wins California by just one vote, they receive all 55 electoral votes. This means that technically a candidate could win a presidential election with only 23 percent of the popular vote. All they have to do is win enough states by one vote, and not win a single vote in any other state. But states aren’t forced to award their electoral votes in a winner-take-all fashion. Maine and Nebraska, for example, currently split their electoral college votes.
Why isn’t this system more popular? After all, allowing a split of the electoral college is more democratic than a winner-take-all system. This is where partisan hackery gets in the way. Of course it would be more democratic for California and Texas to split their electoral votes. But then that would mean more electoral votes for Republicans in California and Democrats in Texas. Neither party is going willing to give their opponent a significant leg up. So for now, we are stuck with what we have. A winner-take-all system that benefits small states.