The Electoral College is stacked against nonwhite voters to such a degree that this year, the average white, non-Hispanic voter appears to have almost twice the power to decide the election as the average Asian American voter, according to a data analysis by BuzzFeed News.
The reason, in short, is that white voters are much more likely than other voters to live in swing states — places such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — where their 2020 ballots have a greater chance of deciding who becomes president.
The Big Picture
BuzzFeed News highlighted a similar effect in 2016. This time around, the political map has shifted, but the effect on voters remains.
BuzzFeed News conducted an analysis that combines voter registration data from the US Census with the “Voter Power Index” (VPI), a tool devised by the statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight. The VPI measures the relative likelihood that a voter will cast the deciding ballot in the presidential election. (You can read more about the methodology at the bottom of this post.)
The table below shows the results of that analysis, broken down by demographic group. (The terminology here comes from the US Census Bureau, which considers “Hispanic” to be an ethnicity, referring to people of any race who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish.) A value of 1.00 would mean that voters of that demographic have as much power through the Electoral College as they would with a national popular vote. Smaller values mean the voters of that demographic have less power under the Electoral College.
FiveThirtyEight’s VPI metric reflects the fact that voters in some states have more power to decide elections than others, based on how competitive the presidential race is there, how many people live in the state (smaller states have more electoral votes per capita), and how other states are leaning. The current estimates range from zero for a few non-competitive places, such as Wyoming and Washington, DC, to more than eight for Pennsylvania.
There are caveats. For one, the BuzzFeed News analysis is based on election forecasts and voter registrations. The final vote tally may differ. In addition, state demographics are always shifting, and this analysis uses voter registration data from 2016.
Still, the pattern is clear: White voters disproportionately live in states that have the most impact on the presidential election.
A Closer Look
What, exactly, is driving these disparities? Here is a closer look, demographic by demographic and state by state, at the key dynamics.
The chart below compares the Voter Power Index — for each state and district with electoral votes — to the percentage of registered voters there who identify as white and non-Hispanic.
The horizontal pink line separates states and districts with a VPI above 1 from those with a VPI below 1. The vertical pink line represents the proportion of registered voters, nationally, who identify as white and non-Hispanic. The dots are sized by the number of registered voters in the state or district.
Pennsylvania, the state that FiveThirtyEight currently says is most likely to decide the election, has a registered voter population that is disproportionately white. So does Wisconsin, the state with the second-highest VPI. (“NE-2” in the chart refers to Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, which has one electoral vote of its own, separate from the state’s overall votes.)
Compare the chart above to the one below, which shows the same distribution but for Black voters. Only three states — Michigan, Georgia, and North Carolina — are inside the pivotal top-right quadrant. States in that quadrant meet two criteria: They have a VPI above 1, and Black residents make up a higher proportion of registered voters than they do nationally.
Hispanic voters, on the other hand, have a few states solidly in the influential top-right quadrant: Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. But such a high proportion of Hispanic registered voters live in California and Texas — two states very unlikely to decide the election — that Hispanic voters end up substantially less powerful than average.
California exerts a similar effect on the overall voting power of Asian Americans — the state is home to more than a third of the country’s Asian American registered voters. Nevada is the only state that has a higher proportion of Asian American voters than the national average and a Voter Power Index above 1, meaning it is the only state where the Electoral College is more advantageous to Asian American voters than a national popular vote.
What would it take to achieve something close to parity for voters who are not white? Either the elimination of the Electoral College or a massive reorganization of the political landscape. Neither seems likely to happen before 2024.
Extra Credit: A Note On Methodology
FiveThirtyEight updates its election forecast every day and publishes data files containing the forecast’s output, including its Voter Power Index calculations. BuzzFeed News used the election forecast from the morning of Oct. 28, 2020, for this analysis.
While it is impossible to know who will vote in the 2020 election, the Census Bureau tracks the number of registered voters by certain demographics every two years. BuzzFeed News used the counts from 2016, the year of the most recent presidential election — specifically Table 4b of the Census Bureau's Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016, which examines registration by sex, race, and Hispanic origin on a statewide level. (Although the table distinguishes between white voters regardless of ethnicity and non-Hispanic white voters, it does not make similar distinctions for Black or Asian American voters.)
BuzzFeed News calculated the weighted average of VPI for each demographic group by multiplying the number of registered voters by the VPI for each electoral unit, adding up those results, and dividing by the total registered voters for that group nationwide. We then normalized the weighted averages by the average weighted VPI for all registered voters as a whole, putting everything back on a scale where 1 would represent equal power for each voter.
To learn more about this analysis, you can access the data and code on GitHub.