The Hill published a hilariously overwrought article earlier this week entitled “How the Electoral College changes the value of a person, a bit like slavery did.” The authors are Robert Epstein, described as a “Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT) and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today,” and a research assistant at AIBRT, Shu Zhang. Dr. Epstein’s Twitter bio describes him as the “Most frequently quoted #psychologist in US.” The tenor of the piece should serve as a caution to anyone considering quoting psychologists on American politics:
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a curious compromise was struck. Southern states wanted slaves counted when determining how representatives to Congress would be apportioned. Ultimately, Northern states agreed to treat each slave as 3/5ths of a person for such purposes.
Given the unprecedented results of the 2016 presidential election, we began wondering whether some Americans are once again worth more than others.
Epstein and Zhang assign a “voter value” by dividing the number of votes cast in a state by the state’s electoral votes; the number represents how many electors each state gets per 333,333 voters:
Values less than 1 mean that voters in those states are, well, a bit like the slaves of old (although slaves couldn’t vote, of course), and values greater than 1 signify a new breed of super-voters. Unter-human states include Florida and North Carolina, where people are worth less than 3/4ths of what voters are worth in Texas (many Texans, including the first author’s wife, would agree), and Uber-human states include Alaska, DC, Hawaii, Vermont, and Wyoming, where people are worth more than twice what Texans are worth (so much for Texans) and nearly four times what Floridians are worth.
Uh, no, actually, having your vote count proportionally a bit less than some other people’s votes in other states is not like slavery at all, and it’s head-smackingly offensive to people who suffered the horrors of slavery to suggest it is. And bonus points here for the not-particularly-subtle use of “unter-human” and “uber-human” to suggest that the Electoral College is designed along the lines of Nazi theories of racial supremacy for….Hawaiians and Vermonters over Floridians?
Rhetorical insanity aside, though, what do these numbers actually tell us? It’s not news that the Electoral College (like the Senate) was designed to protect the rights of small states (at the time of the Constitution, this meant protecting Delaware, New Hampshire, Georgia, Rhode Island, and New Jersey from being dominated by Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts). For states with 4 or fewer electors, half of their electors are awarded on the basis of ”2 for each Senator,” the other half for their House seats. So, it’s no surprise that every one of the states (plus DC) with a “voter value” above 1.25 have between 3 and 5 electoral votes; the states with 6 are all right behind them, except for Iowa, while the larger states are mostly in the chart’s top half (i.e., a lower value of electors per voter). The structural protection the Electoral College gives to small states is precisely why they will never consent to changing it.
But what’s ridiculous about this metric as an indictment of the Electoral College is the states listed as being most devalued by our Electoral College system. Look at the top eight states on the list, the states with a “voter value” below 0.8:
Now, if you paid any attention to the 2016 election, the first thing you notice about this list is, these are the states that decided the election. The top five were red states that went for George W. Bush twice; all eight went for Barack Obama in 2008, and seven of them went for Obama in 2012, but six of the eight went for Trump in 2016, providing his margin of victory (the only Obama state Trump flipped that isn’t on this list is Iowa, which as noted is rated by the “voter value” score as the small state with the least impact per voter). Moreover, measuring by actual votes cast ignores the fact that people have a greater incentive to vote when they know their state is competitive. (It also doesn’t adjust for the fact that some states, like Wisconsin, have a historic tradition of high voter turnout, while others, like Texas, do not). And turnout varies from year to year at different rates in different states. The voters in these states picked the president…yet somehow that makes them like slaves of the people in uncompetitive states? Slaves should have been so fortunate.