Tag Archives: Electoral College

On State Sizes and Power

Anyone who has glanced at a map of the United States has had this thought: Look at all those big states with straight lines, something like Tetris assembly blocks.  Perhaps you’ve expressed it out loud: What’s that all about? — All those straight lines?

All US States have at least part of their borders made up of “straight lines”

Perhaps none draws your attention more than my home state of Colorado, and not just because it is somewhat large; in fact the 7th largest of all states south of 49 degrees.  It’s because its boundaries are four perfectly “straight” lines (as is Wyoming): two east-to-west, spaced exactly 4 degrees of latitude apart; and two north-to-south, spaced exactly 7 degrees of longitude apart.  [Since the world is curved, the east-west lines are, of course, not perfectly straight].

Tetras Blocks

Now why is all of that?

The history of state shapes — and straight line boundaries — long precedes the incorporation of western states into the union.  It’s a fact that the shapes of each of the original 13 states also had straight line boundaries, mostly along lines of latitude. And each of those, in turn, got their straight lines from charters issued by the Monarchs of England, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

All of the original 13 colonies that made up the original US had straight lines in their colonial borders

Those original colonial charters, issued well before the Declaration of Independence, laid down much of the DNA for the political conflict we suffer today, now well into the 21st century.

Hearkening back to those original charters, with boundaries following straight lines as well as hill crests and river channels, led to colonies of vastly different size and population.  When the colonies’ representatives assembled in the Continental Congress – eventually to seek independence from England – the smaller colonies (think Delaware, Rhode Island, and 9 more) were wary of the potential political power from larger, more populous and economically more brawny, muscular colonies, especially Virginia and New York.

Once independence was attained – de facto after victory and Yorktown in 1781 and officially by the Treaty of Paris 1783 – the 13 independent states hammered out their differences by many compromises to became a single nation, which we generally respect today as the Constitution of the United States; it became the federal rule book on March 4, 1789.

When the Paris Treaty was signed the new government immediately had some very important questions regarding states’ relative powers to address.  How to administer all the new land west of the Appalachians, and what are the details of how new states are to be transformed from territories to state stauts?

A top criterion for this evolution was that no state should have excessive power over the others.  This was a lesson learned through the tribulations of the Continental Congress. Sadly, this is largely unwritten and not in any legislation that I know of or could find.  Nonetheless, upon entering the Union, a state would necessarily be comparatively weak, since only 60,000 residents were required to apply – most original states had many times that.  But, by allocating a fairly consistent amount of land area to new states, their power could be constrained to reasonable limits as their populations grew. Expecting that it would take many generations to populate “the west”, and believing that the climate was consistent with reports of “the vast American desert”, most of the western states were allocated larger areas.

In short, new states were allocated area commensurate with the expected ability to grow a population that would make them all roughly equal in political power.

There were a few errors made here, including: 1) the westward emigration occurred much more rapidly than expected; and 2) without a full understanding of various western climates, they could not accurately forecast what the full and final population of these new states would be. Spend much time in the vast lands between the Pacific coast and the Appalachians and you can attest that they are much more varied than anyone in 19th century DC could expect.

To address these needs of expansion, new states and balancing state powers:  there was first the Land Ordinance of 1785 followed by its sister legislation the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which allocated five states in the new Northwest Territory (north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River). These eventually became, in order: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.  Removing the quirk of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula we can compare their landmasses and today’s Electoral Vote power as shown in the table here.  I’ve also included the first two “western states”, Tennessee and Kentucky, which joined the Union before Ohio, under the same general guidelines.

Land Area and EC votes of first 7 States admitted after independence (but not Vermont: a freak of history)

Although there is certainly some variation, it is not nearly as wide as the original 13. Among those, Virginia had area of 67,000 sq miles* to Rhode Island’s 1,500sq mi.  And an Electoral College weight of ten to R.I.’s three votes.  In fact, Rhode Island was so put off and fearful that they did not ratify the Constitution until 1790, and hence their Electoral Votes, although it mattered little, were not counted in George Washington’s first election. [* – This is not the exact area of the original Virginia; I have stripped off most of the lands west of the Appalachians that was removed as part of the 1st Bank of America compromise; this also happened to other original states, especially North Carolina and Georgia. These sizes can be seen in the second map, above].

The allocation of most subsequent new states was intended to keep a balance between the states more or less in order.  Using lines of latitude and longitude, a long and established practice dating back to the monarchs, was continued with each and every new state (with the exceptions of Hawai’i and Alaska: the latter’s eastern border was established by treaty) as this was a convenience in the drawing of territory and state lines.  Although this approach had very little regard to geography (for example, the towering Rocky Mountains run right through the middle of Colorado) it was easy to assign areas in this way.

[A coincidental oddity: the border between Colorado and New Mexico, along the 37th parallel, passes within a few feet of the peak of Raton Pass]

There were certainly some anomalies, and in some regard, they curse us today.  Of course, Hawai’I and Alaska, admitted in 1959, were freaks of history.  But, they are quite small with regard to population and will forever remain that way.  But there were others.  “Free” West Virginia was split off from Virginia during the Civil War.  Virginia’s area was further reduced to 42,700 sq miles and West Virginia comes in at a relatively puny 24,200 sq mi.

Before the bloodletting of the Civil War, two other states were admitted under relatively “unplanned” circumstances.  States that bore no resemblance to the unofficial rule of keeping states’ powers relatively balanced.  Those two were Texas and California.  And the circumstances were directly related to haste — and in trying to cement the United State’s ownership of these lands during and after the Mexican-American War.  The California Gold Rush (“In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for mine; dwelt a miner, 49er and his daughter Clementine … “) added to the urgency of speeding California into the union, in 1850. The government played up the urgency of admitting them rather quickly without regard to (and without understanding) how large their populations could grow.

These two, Texas and California, came in massively at 268,600 and 163,700 square miles.  Wow. So much for planning and vision. Their populations have since swelled so (California far more than Texas) that they carry much more sway on national politics than was ever envisioned in our country’s long history.

At the time those states (CA and TX) could conceivably have been split into 3, 4 or even 5 territories, each slated to become a state at some point.  However, that would have disrupted the delicate balance between the number of slave and free states.

So we carry these historical relics and artifacts with us today in our national politics.  The impacts on things like the Electoral College and political clashes is huge.  Most people have a complaint about how it is working out.  Many workarounds have been suggested.

As of today, eleven states, plus DC (Colorado is now on track to become the next) have passed legislation to join a Compact wherein they are committed to giving all their Electoral Votes to whoever wins the national popular vote.

As during the Constitutional Convention, most small population states will remain wary of the larger states, especially California — especially as the size of the Compact grows — and as the Compact threatens to drown out their their Whoville voices. At some point, perhaps only Horton will hear them. As of now, the 18th century constitutional compromise that protects smaller states from the massive vote generating capability of the larger states still protects them … at least for now.

Anyway, that’s the short story on all the straight lines, how we got them and how it affects us today. Thanks for reading — and there’s a final note below with plots showing that, overall and excepting CA, TX, HI, AK and the original 13, the allocation of state sizes and shapes was actually done pretty well.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2019

To contact Joe just email him at joe@girardmeister.com

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Final Thoughts.

  1. I must acknowledge a fun little book by Mark Stein that gave me some factoids and insights, called “How the States got their Shapes”, Smithsonian Books, (c) 2008
  2. For completeness and visualization: Below I have plotted the states’ area vs their number of electoral votes.  In the first plot, all 50 states are included.  The visually obvious Electoral outliers with extraordinary power according to the founders, are (in order) California, Texas, Florida and New York.  California and Texas — and to a certain extent Florida — are freaks of historical circumstance.  New York is of course one of the original states.  (California currently gets 55 votes; New York and Florida 29, and Texas 38).

In the second plot, the original 13 have been removed (as have West Virginia and Maine, since they were spin offs of original states) and the historical freaks.   Florida is retained.  The 2nd plot is on the same scale as the first, so that one can see that these remaining states make a nice little cluster and one can deduce that, odd historical circumstances aside, the federal gov’t did a pretty good job of controlling and normalizing states’ relative power.  A few states have very low Electoral Votes (e.g. the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana), and that’s understandable, as the government did not really understand how these areas could not support much population.

Scatter of State sizes and Electoral Vote Compared: 2nd Plot does not include original 13, TX, AK, CA.

I contend the Electoral College method of choosing presidents and Veeps would be nearly bullet proof with a few changes; and the first change would be to make the total cluster plot of states population and power look like the second plot, and not the first. It can reduce the likelihood of winners losing (and losers winning), and respect the choices of smaller states without completely doing away with the Electoral College, which is effectively what the States Compact does.

 

 

Collegial Codes and Conspiracies

November 20, 2016

A few Tuesdays ago – a day we will all recall for decades to come, if we live that long – I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the election returns. I was disgusted by the campaigning, the candidates, and the pompous potshots by everyone from ants to asshats.

After reading that Nate Silver had the chance of a popular vote/electoral mismatched vote as high as 10% [1] – and hoping to dear God that would not be the case – I squirreled myself safely away from outside earshot of the TV and commenced to thinking about the Electoral College.  Its birth.  Its history.  What it means today.  Then I tapped out a pretty good rough draft of an essay.  A Joe Girard classic format.

The essay was overtaken by destiny. As Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogard) said in Casablanca: It seems destiny has taken a hand. Maybe someday I’ll finish it and publish it.  Here’s what happened.

I tapped my notes out on my ASUS tablet, onto which I’ve installed the Politico app (a well-regarded and usually considered slightly left-leaning news source).  Politico feeds news headlines – usually very, very occasionally – across the bottom of my screen.  After a couple of hours I took a peek.

Virginia for Clinton.  Of course.

Florida for Trump.  Odd, but Okay, not totally unexpected.

North Carolina for Trump.  Less unexpected.

Then the feed that Ohio was looking like a Trump win.  And possibly Pennsylvania too.

Now to Central Time Zone.  Wisconsin looks like a Trump win.

Oh… My… God.  This could really be happening. It IS happening. I saved the draft essay and browsed to the CNN and Fox sites for maps shaded red, pink, purple, sky blue and navy blue.  Some quick math showed Trump with a very plausible path to 270, well before 10PM Mountain Time.

And THAT was the end of the Electoral College essay.

_______________________________________________

Soon, on December 19, 2016, the 538 Electors from the 50 states, plus DC, will meet in their respective states and District, and cast their votes for President and Vice President of the United States of America. Presumably at least 290 will vote for Donald Trump, and 232 for Mrs Clinton, with the destiny of Michigan’s 16 electoral votes STILL not determined at this writing (although it is looking like a slim margin Trump win at the time of this writing).

This is the “Real” Election for President and Vice President.  When we voted for Clinton or Trump (or whomever) on November 8, we were actually voting for an entire slate of Electors who are pledged to vote for those candidates on December 19.

Some people are saying it ain’t over til it’s over; it ain’t over till the fat lady sings; and other such mixed metaphors. Well, they’re right.  That’s how the system works and Mr. Trump is not officially President-elect until those votes are cast.

Before discussing that, let’s talk about who these Electors are.

They are not just Joe and Jane average-citizen who have signed a pledge to vote a certain way, if they should themselves get elected.

They are party loyalists.  The life blood of their respective parties. Almost always they’ve been very active in their state’s political parties.

For example, an elector from California is Christine Pelosi.  The daughter of Nancy Pelosi.

An elector candidate from Maryland is Michael Steele, the (black) former head of the Republican National Party.  [Maryland went for Clinton, so Steele will not be voting as an Elector on December 19].

All potential candidates for Elector are screened by their state parties well in advance of the election. It’s obvious that the main qualification is party loyalty, and the bar for party loyalty – as you can surmise and see from the examples – is very high.

Can you imagine a Pelosi voting for anyone other than Mrs Clinton?

No, of course not.

But for those who simply fall ill at the very thought of a President Trump, let me offer an alternative outcome.  It involves my own wildly conceived conspiracy.

The Electors were chosen, in most cases, well before it was clear that Mr Trump would be the Republican candidate.

Since their selection by their state parties as Electors, an astounding number of Conservatives and Republicans have gone quite public with their disdain for Mr. Trump.  So much, that they did not support or vote for him.  From the ranks of politicians there is, for example, Mitt Romney and all the Bush families. Karl Rove considers Trump “a complete idiot.” Three term South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler didn’t support Trump. Neither did former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman (who lost his seat to comedian Al Franken by a few hundred votes in 2008). John Huntsman.  Christine Todd Whitman.

It’s actually quite a long list, which I will spare you the tedious task of scanning.These are big name Republican politicians who openly did not support Trump.  Trump was publicly shunned.

And then there’s the “conservative” intelligentsia.  Jonah Goldberg, chief editor at at National Review (William F Buckley’s magazine!! For crying out loud) lambasted Trump every chance he got.  Glenn Beck ran far away from the “idiot” Trump.  George Will brilliantly pointed out on a Sunday Talking-heads news show this summer that Trump “has been a Republican for all of about 15 minutes.”

These were the “Never Trump” folks. Their cast was large, significant and influential.

That Trump won without much support from the faithful Right is truly astounding.

But could it also be his undoing?  As most of the Electors were chosen before it was certain that Trump would be the Republican candidate … could they turn the tables on him since so many “Conservatives” and “Republicans” don’t consider Trump a true Republican? Not a qualified representative of their “party of values” to serve as President.

That’s the genesis of my conspiracy theory.

Now, don’t presume that ANY Republican Electors will vote for Mrs. Clinton.  Not gonna happen. Mrs Clinton is stuck at 232 and no petition is going to get her to the 270 needed to be President.

But … What if 37 or more Electors conspired to cast their Presidential vote for someone more … uh, digestible… than Trump?

That would reduce his tally from 306 to 269, or less.  A person cannot be elected President outright by the Electoral College with fewer than 270 votes.

But whom would these 37 (or more) unfaithful Electors vote for, and how would they choose such a person?

Well, consider the Constitution’s provision in such a case. The House of Representatives chooses the next President, and they can only choose from among the THREE candidates who receive the most Electoral votes. [In 1824 John Quincy Adams ran second to Andrew Jackson in the Electoral tally, but was chosen by the House as 6th President, since Jackson did not secure a majority of Electoral votes and was considered, by many, to be too wild and uncivilized to be President.  He eventually did win outright in 1828 and 1832).

Here’s how the House of Representatives chooses: Each state gets only ONE vote.  And a clear majority, that is 26 states, is required.

When the new Congress is seated, next January, the Republicans will have a majority of Congressional seats in about 33 states, the same as now.  Suppose … now just suppose, a band of unfaithful Republican Electors spoke secretly with Republican House leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan (WI) and decided to bump Trump.

In this conspiracy, 37 Electors (who are sworn and pledged to vote for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump) break their pledge.  Most vote for the pre-arranged preferred candidate, let’s say it’s Joe Girard.  Ha!! Just kidding.  Let’s say Mitt McCain (another fictional character). Who then comes in third place.

When the votes are sent to Washington, no single candidate has a majority.

The top three candidates are sent to the House for consideration.  And John Romney is chosen.

Yes, this is the stuff of cheap fictional novels.

And it’s not going to happen.

But it IS possible. Trump COULD still be thwarted.

Sincerely, I am your conspiracy theorist …

Joe Girard © 2016

[1] Nate Silver has become something of a highly regarded prognosticator in election season.  I think he’s more of an eccentric and talented statistician.  A wizard with numbers.  Here are a couple of his newsfeeds in the last week before the 2016 election.

(a) http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-odds-of-an-electoral-college-popular-vote-split-are-increasing/

(b) http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/election-update-the-campaign-is-almost-over-and-heres-where-we-stand/

[2] Politico is highly regarded. I take it to be slightly left leaning by this review, and that it’s editorial leadership came from Washington Post. http://www.allsides.com/news-source/politico

Also slightly Left per this research (as well as NPR’s taxpayer funded slight Left lean):

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2011/03/22/science-settles-it-nprs-liberal-but-not-very/#414296f499e8