SYNOPSIS: Krugman explains why, although to a small extent, the electoral college gives small states disproportionate influence

I had some interesting correspondence (I mean actually interesting, as opposed to the usual personal abuse, threats, etc.) over my column "True Blue Americans". In that column I pointed out the gap between the heartland's rhetoric of superior morality and self-reliance, and the reality that indicators of personal responsibility if anything look a bit better in the urbanized coastal states, and that the "blue" states heavily subsidize the "red" states. But that's not what the interesting correspondence was about.

Instead, some writers challenged my assertion that the citizens of states with small populations are overrepresented by our political system. Yes, they said, because each state has two senators, small states get more than their share of electoral votes; but because each state's electoral vote is winner-take-all, a vote in a big state is more likely to matter.

This is a fun argument to think about. You know in your gut that it's wrong - but why is it wrong? The answer, I think, is that it answers the wrong question. But let me first give the argument its due, then knock it down.

So consider a toy version of the US, which contains only three states. New York has a population of three people; North Dakota and South Dakota have one person each.

Let's start with a "fair" electoral college, in which each state gets an electoral vote for each inhabitant. So NY has three electoral votes, while ND and SD each have one.

The question my correspondents are in effect answering is this: if each voter is equally likely to support one of two candidates, Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong, how likely is it that any one voter's choice is decisive?

It's immediately clear that the voters in ND and SD don't matter: whichever candidate NY chooses is the winner. On the other hand, if you are one of the NY voters, there is a 50 percent chance that the other two are divided. In that case, your choice is decisive. That's the sense in which voters in large states have more power than voters in small states. In reality, of course, the chance that an individual casts the decisive vote in a national election is tiny indeed - though the last presidential election was decided by a 5-4 margin. Still, political scientists have calculated that that tiny probability is considerably higher in large states than in small states, even though our electoral college is not "fair" - it gives small states much more than their per capita share.

But is this the right question? Is the issue on the table whether an individual is likely to cast the deciding vote? Not, I think, if we want to know why politicians cater to the heartland. I think the right question - in terms of my toy model - is whether an ambitious politician should advocate a policy that favors NY but annoys ND and SD, or vice versa.

If the electoral college actually gave states electoral votes in proportion to their population, the politician would favor New York, which has most of the people. But now make the electoral college in the toy model look like the real one: give each state two additional votes. Now the Dakotas combined have 6 electoral votes, compared with New York's 5. QED.

So I stand by my original position: we do, indeed, have a rotten-borough political system that gives small states disproportionate weight, especially in the Senate, but also to a lesser extent in presidential elections. And that's what both the farm bill and the steel tariff are all about.

Originally published on The Official Paul Krugman Website, 5.27.02