The Economy

A New Trend in the Electoral College: Rising Income Inequality

What the Electoral College says about the U.S. economy.

Despite all you’ve heard about voting and inequality in America, you haven’t yet heard about the rise in inequality among those who elect the president. In every presidential election year, these individuals meet on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December. In 2020, they’ll meet on December 14th. Then, the 538 of them will cast the paper ballots poised to decide who the president and vice president will be on January 21, 2021.

These individuals are the “electors” who comprise America’s Electoral College. When you register your preference for president and vice president, in fact, you’re technically only “voting for the electors committed to support those candidates.” You vote, in other words, only on whom you want the real voters — the electors in your state’s electoral college delegation — to vote for. Whether your vote is the potential game-clinching three-point shot or a throwaway, in turn, depends on the potential for the votes of your state’s electoral delegates to clinch the national contest that plays out in the Electoral College. These are the current rules of the game per the U.S. Constitution, even if you hate them.

The chart above shows how an estimate of income inequality among the individual electors has evolved over the course of centuries. While the requisite state-level personal-income data are available only at twenty-year intervals starting in 1880, they’re available every year from 1950 from onward. The chart shows data on the Electoral Colleges only of 1880, 1900, 1920, and 1940, until the election of 1952 – after which it displays each of the U.S. presidential election at four-year intervals. . While recent data are more comprehensive, the pattern of interest remains visible throughout.

Immediately after the Civil War, it seems, the estimated level of income inequality among the electors of American presidents embarked on a steep and sustained downward trajectory, decline which lasted over a century. Around 2000, however, the drop stopped. Then it went into reverse. Ever since, inequality among this American electorate has been on a steady rise. This trend is idiosyncratic, not a reflection of conventional measures of inequality in America, many of which. .start to rise earlier in the 20th  century.

These estimates of Electoral College inequality are constructed based on an initial assumption that each individual elector’s personal income is equal to their state’s per capita personal income. Suppose you then imagine all of these electoral delegates from all the states as a single set of American voters. The chart shows a conventional measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, among this constructed population of American electors. As a matter of historical fact, the incomes of those who comprised each state’s Electoral College delegation certainly varies. But the state’s per capita income captures the income typical among the general population that each state’s electors represent.

The fluctuations in the chart come from changes in the number of electors per state as well as per capita incomes within states. For instance, in 1880, when South Carolina had seven electoral college votes and a per capita income of $74, Massachusetts had thirteen electoral votes and a per capita income of $292. By 2016, though the Bay State’s per capita income of $65,725 remained above South Carolina’s $40,529, its Electoral College population had shrunk by two, from thirteen to eleven, while South Carolina’s had grown by two, from seven to nine. Other variation comes from the accession of new states to the Union. Alaska and Hawaii, for instance, first entered the Electoral College – and therefore this calculation – in 1960.

This recent rise in income inequality within the Electoral College is likely a symptom of a new tendency among state economies, in the United States, to disunite. “The convergence in per capita incomes across U.S. states from 1880 to 1980 is one of the most striking patterns in macroeconomics,” according to economists at Harvard and the University of Chicago. But they continue, “over the past thirty years, this relationship has weakened dramatically.” By the time their sample stops, in 2010, “virtually zero” convergence occurs, they report.

America’s own history underscores the potential for divergences of fortune between states to rip it apart. Whatever story of the Civil War’s origins you want to tell, the chasm between the North and South’s economic trajectories is likely to at least be a part of it. Today, it seems, America has returned to a political environment as polarized as what existed on the eve of the Civil War. Many are vexed by this turn of events. The chart above, however, suggests an answer: We may be living through a reboot of the national politics that greets America whenever the electors of its President represent states with increasingly divergent economic interests. “It’s the economy, stupid” may apply, ominously, even to today’s fraught partisan vortex.

Inequality, then, may well be what’s ripping America apart as its political seams. But it’s not the type of inequality familiar to familiar gripes about the global rise of a top 1 percent. If any inequality is the culprit, this exceptionally American vintage is a likely suspect.

Joseph W. Sullivan served at the White House Council of Economic Advisers as the special adviser to the chairman, as well as a staff economist, from 2017 to 2019.


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