The Electoral College, Federalism and the Small State Bonus, Part 1

by J. Wesley Leckrone

Assistant Professor of Political Science, Widener University

The 2012 presidential race is close enough that some pundits are predicting the winner of the Electoral College (EC) will differ from the popular vote. Whether or not this happens, there will likely be a post-election debate about the utility of the EC and whether it contradicts notions of democracy in the 21st century.

There are numerous arguments against the Electoral College (see The National Popular Vote for a list).  One of the most contentious is whether the “federalism bonus” gives too much representation to small states. Randall Adkins and Kent Kirwan address this issue in their 2002 article “What Role Does the ‘Federalism Bonus’ Play in Presidential Selection” (Publius: The Journal of Federalism). They address why the Founders created the Electoral College, whether it actually has any effects on the outcomes of presidential elections, and whether there is any chance of reforming  or abolishing the EC given our constitutional amendment process. I’ll address how the “Federalism Bonus” has affected presidential elections in this post and explore their other arguments in future blogs.

Adkins and Kirwan argue that

“If each state receives a number of presidential electors equal to that state’s number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives plus the two senators, then the ‘federalism bonus’ represents the two electoral college votes that correspond to the position of each state as an equal entity in the Senate.”

This has been criticized by contentions that

“the ‘federalism bonus’ causes a distortion of the popular vote, leading to unequal representation by providing  disproportionate influence into the citizens of small states. For example, in the 2000 presidential election, each of Wyoming’s three electors ‘represented’ 151,196 persons in the state. At the other extreme, each of California’s 54 electors represented some 551,112 persons.”

The authors examined all elections between 1856 and 2000 to see if the “federalism bonus” played any part in the outcome of the Electoral College vote. To do this they compared the EC vote under the existing system and then created another EC vote that subtracted the EC electors attributed to a state’s Senators (i.e a state with only one House member and two Senators would normally receive three electoral votes. However, minus the “federalism bonus” they would receive only one).

They found that there were only three elections where the “federalism bonus” influenced the outcome of a presidential election: 1876, 1916, and 2000. Missing from this list is the 1888 election between Cleveland and Harrison that was decided by the EC. The 1916 election is not typically an election associated with a divergence between the EC and the popular vote, but Adkins and Kirwan show that absent the “federalism bonus” Hughes would have defeated Wilson.  The chart below shows the stats on these elections:

Here is the breakdown of how small states affected the EC vote in these elections.

Adkins and Kirwan have two meaningful conclusions about this data. First, between 1856-2000 only 3 of 37 elections were affected by the “federalism bonus” (8.1%). Second

“[w]hile two-thirds of the states enjoy some degree of over-representation in the electoral college… the states with only three to five electoral votes often represent the margin of victory in these very close elections.”

A future blog will explore the authors’ arguments as to why it is unlikely these states will give up their “federalism bonus” through a change in the EC.