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A Priori Voting Power and the U.S. Electoral College

A Priori Voting Power and the U.S. Electoral College

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Published by Peggy Satterfield
This paper uses the Banzhaf power measure to calculate the a priori voting power of individual voters under the existing Electoral College system for electing the President of the United States, as well as under variants of this system in which electoral votes are either apportioned among the states in a different manner or cast by the states in a different manner.
This paper uses the Banzhaf power measure to calculate the a priori voting power of individual voters under the existing Electoral College system for electing the President of the United States, as well as under variants of this system in which electoral votes are either apportioned among the states in a different manner or cast by the states in a different manner.

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Published by: Peggy Satterfield on Oct 29, 2012
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Essays in Honor of Hannu NurmiHomo Oeconomicus 26(3/4): 341–380
(2009)
 
www.accedoverlag.de
A Priori 
Voting Power and the U.S. Electoral College
Nicholas R. Miller
Department of Political Science, University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC),Baltimore, USA(eMail: nmiller@umbc.edu)
Abstract
This paper uses the Banzhaf power measure to calculate the
a priori
voting power of individual voters under the existing Electoral College system forelecting the President of the United States, as well as under variants of this system inwhich electoral votes are either apportioned among the states in a different manner orcast by the states in a different manner. While the present winner-take-all manner of casting state electoral gives a substantial advantage to voters in the largest states, thisadvantage is diluted by the small-state advantage in apportionment. Moreover, mostof the alternative Electoral College plans that have been proposed to remedy thislarge-state advantage give an equally substantial voting power advantage to votersin small states. Direct popular election of the President uniquely maximizes andequalizes individual voting power.
Keywords
Electoral College, voting power, Banzhaf measure
1. Introduction
The President of the United States is elected, not by a direct national popularvote, but by an Electoral College system in which (in almost universal prac-tice since the 1830s) separate state popular votes are aggregated by addingup electoral votes awarded on a winner-take-all basis to the plurality win-ner in each state. State electoral votes vary with population and at presentrange from 3 to 55. The Electoral College therefore generates the kind of weighted voting system that invites analysis using one of the several mea-sures of 
a priori
voting power. With such a measure, we can determinewhether and how much the power of voters varies from state to state and
c
2009 Accedo Verlagsgesellschaft, München.ISBN 978-3-89265-072-0 ISSN 0943-0180
 
342
N. R. Miller:
A Priori
Voting Power and the U.S. Electoral College
how voting power would change under various alternatives to the existingElectoral College system.With respect to the first question, directly contradictory claims are com-monly expressed. Many commentators see a substantial small-state advan-tage in the existing system but others see a large-state advantage. Partlybecause the Electoral College is viewed by some as favoring small statesand by others as favoring large states, it is commonly asserted that a con-stitutional amendment modifying or abolishing the Electoral College couldnever be ratified by the required 38 states. The so-called ‘National PopularVote Plan’ (an interstate compact among states with at least 270 electoralvotes that would pledge to cast their electoral votes for the ‘national pop-ular vote winner’) has been proposed as a way to bypass the constitutionalamendment process.The divergent assessments of bias in the Electoral College often arisefrom a failure by commentators to make two related distinctions. The firstis the theoretical distinction between
voting weight 
and
voting power 
. Thesecond is the practical distinction between
how electoral votes are appor-tioned 
among the states (which determines their voting weights) and
howelectoral votes are cast 
by states (which influences their voting power).These distinctions were clearly recognized many years ago by LutherMartin, a Maryland delegate to the convention that drafted the U.S. Consti-tution in 1787. Martin delivered a report on the work of the ConstitutionalConvention to the Maryland State Legislature in which he made the follow-ing argument.
[E]ven if the States who had the most inhabitants ought to have the greatestnumber of delegates [to the proposed House of Representatives], yet the
num-ber of delegates
ought not to be in
exact proportion
to the
number of inhabitants
because the influence and power of those states whose delegates are numerouswill be
greater 
, when compared to the influence and power of the other States,than the
proportion
which the numbers of their delegates bear to each other; as,for instance, though Delaware has
one
delegate, and Virginia but
ten
, yet Vir-ginia has
more
than
ten times
as much
power 
and
influence
in the government asDelaware.
1
Martin evidently assumed that each state delegation in the House wouldcast its votes as a bloc, so he counted up various voting combinations of states in order to support his claim. Martin’s objection to apportioning seatsproportionally to population correctly anticipated one of the fundamental
1
Cited by Riker (1986). Martin’s report can be found in Farrand (1937), Vol. 3; the quotationappears on pp.198-199 with all emphasis in the original.
 
 Essays in Honor of H. Nurmi
343
propositions of modern voting power analysis — namely, that voting powermay not be proportional to voting weight. This principle is most evidentin the extreme case in which a single voter has a bare majority of the vot-ing weight and therefore all the voting power, an example of which Martinprovided earlier in his report (1937, p. 182).Of course, Martin’s expectation that state delegations in the House wouldcast bloc votes was not borne out. However, as noted at the outset, state elec-toral votes for President would soon be cast in blocs, and the U.S. ElectoralCollege has subsequently been one of the principal institutions to whichvoting power analysis has been applied.The mode of 
apportioning
electoral votes is fixed in the Constitution:each state has electoral votes equal to its total representation in Congress,i.e., its House seats (apportioned on the basis of its population but with ev-ery state guaranteed at least one) plus two (for the Senators to which everystate is entitled). Thus each state is guaranteed three electoral votes, and theapportionment reflects population only above this floor. The relative mag-nitude of the small-state advantage in electoral votes is determined by theratio of the size of the Senate to the size of the House. While this ratio variedbetween about 0.19 and 0.29 during the nineteenth century, it has remainedessentially constant at about 0.22 over the last hundred years.
2
Since 1912the size of the House has been fixed at 435, since 1959 there have been 50states, and since 1964 the 23rd Amendment has granted three electoral votesto the District of Columbia, so the total number of electoral votes at presentis 538, with a bare majority of 270 votes required for election. Since 1964a 269-269 electoral vote tie has been possible, so a Presidential electionmay be ‘thrown into the House of Representatives’ (for lack of an electoralvote winner) even in the absence of third-party candidates winning electoralvotes. In this event, the Constitution provides that the House of Represen-tatives will choose between the tied candidates, with each state delegationcasting one vote.Additional Representatives (and electoral votes) beyond the floor of threeare apportioned among the states on the basis of population. Since 1940, the‘Hill-Huntington’ apportionment formula (a divisor method also known asthe ‘Method of Equal Proportions’) has been used for this purpose, eventhough this method appears to have a slight small-state bias (Balinski andYoung, 1982). Figure 1A shows the apportionment of House seats follow-
2
However, Congress has the power to change the size of the House without a constitutionalamendment, so in principle it can increase or decrease the small-state advantage in electoralvote apportionment by decreasing or increasing the size of the House. For an analysis of how House size can influence the outcome of Presidential elections, see Neubauer and Zeitlin(2003).

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