The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texans will be the most underrepresented Americans in the electoral college next year

A cheerleader waves a University of Texas Longhorns flag during the second half of last Saturday's football game against Rice University in Houston. (Eric Gay/AP)

One of the common complaints about the electoral college is that it necessarily weights some Americans more heavily than others. Every state gets an electoral vote for each of its senators and House members, meaning that every state gets at least three. (For the past 50 years or so, the District has, as well.) That unbalanced math — each Wyoming senator represents 290,000 people vs. the nearly 20 million represented by each of California’s — translates to how we formally elect the president.

The result is that residents of lower-population states like Wyoming have consistently had more value within the electoral college than residents of other states. Over time, the population of the country has grown substantially faster than the number of electoral votes available (a total that hasn’t changed since 1964). So the number of electoral votes per 1 million people has declined fairly steadily, given the increase in the number of millions of people.

Again, that figure varies widely. In 1900, for example, the state of Nevada had a population of about 43,000 people — but it still had three electoral votes. For each million residents, then, the state had nearly 70 electoral votes.

As the state grew, that figure dropped. States like Wyoming and Alaska, which have remained relatively unpopulated, have remained well above the national representation level.

There’s another, underappreciated factor that skews the electoral vote math: the decennial census. Every 10 years, the federal government counts the population of the United States. That count informs the allocation of House seats and electoral college votes, among many other things.

But consider what happens when a presidential election occurs at the end of one of those cycles, as next year’s election will: The population totals are out of date. States that grew quickly over the decade are penalized because they have only the electoral votes they were given at the beginning of the decade. States that shrank, on the other hand, benefit, enjoying an electoral vote allocation for a population that no longer exists. (On the graph above, you can see how the lines occasionally jump up or down after a 10-year mark, reflecting census-based changes. The jump seen for the District reflects its being granted electoral votes.)

The combination of the steady decrease in the number of electoral votes per person nationally and the fact that the 2020 election will be held at the end of a census cycle leads to an interesting development. Based on 2018 population data (the most recent available), Texas will not only have the lowest representation per resident of any state but also have the lowest representation per resident of any state since at least 1900.

Texas will have 1.32 electoral votes per million residents. Wyoming, on the other hand, will have 5.19.

This runs contrary to one of the accepted narratives about the electoral college. It’s often justifiably seen as benefiting Republicans over Democrats, as demonstrated in 2000 and 2016. But it’s also the case that, on average, states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 have slightly lower representation in the electoral college (2.14 votes per million residents) than do states that voted for Hillary Clinton (2.34).

Why? Because there are a lot of low-population blue states, too. Seven of the 11 states with the most electoral votes per million residents are states (or federal districts) that backed Clinton. Of the 10 states with the lowest representation, seven backed Trump.

Where the weighting gets out of whack is with those states to the left of the black “national” bar above. There are 13 blue states that had electoral vote representation above the national baseline and eight with representation below that level. On the other hand, there are 19 red states with representation above the national level. Only 10 are below.

Again, this only holds for the 2020 election. By 2024, there will be a new distribution of electoral votes and, we can assume, a new leader on this ignominious metric. So Texans, who famously enjoying celebrating their exceptionalism, need to make the most of the moment.

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