Rachel of Alas has a post about structural racism up for MLK Day. In the discussion section of that post, we get into it hot and heavy about the Electoral College and how it is, per Rachel, a “very good example of structural racism”. Why? Because more white people live in the small states, which are proportionally “whiter” than the rest of the country. In Rachel’s words, “It proves that whites votes count for more.”
Not really. Aside from the obvious logical flaw of assigning a weight based on skin color when it is in fact based on a geographic distinction (a black man who lives in Wyoming gets the same overweighted vote in the Electoral College as a white man), the numbers do not, in fact, support Rachel’s position. In the spirit of the “blue states give less” and “red states are dumber” statistical simplifications that go around the Web every time there’s an election (I’ve posted one or two myself), in a follow-up post she comes up with two tables purporting to show that all the small states are heavily white, and all the big states are less white, and thus the Electoral College deprecates the black vote enormously. (The actual quote from the first post is via a source who she cites approvingly, stating that “The Electoral College negates the votes of almost half of all people of color.”)
Again, it turns out, not really. In fact, not only not really – it’s pretty much a wash. Here is an exhaustive table of the states which have votes in the Electoral College. The first six columns are self-explanatory. “EV Weight” is an inverted factors showing the significance of a single person’s vote in that state, compared to the hypothetical “fair” number of people who should get 1 electoral vote if everything was even-steven. Numbers lower than one indicate that a person voting in that state has more than their “fair share” of input into the Electoral College; the winner here is Wyoming, at 0.31. The worst-off state is Texas, at 1.24. The “EV Over/Undercount” column indicates how many EC votes the state would gain or lose if everything were perfectly proportional (and if we could have fractional EC votes). The “White” and “Nonwhite Over/Undercount” columns indicate how many of those over or undervotes would be distributed among the racial balance of the state; if a state “should” have 10 more EC votes and is 80% white, then 8 of those votes are credited to the white column, and 2 to the non-white.
The point of all this was to come up with a picture of how the distribution of Electoral College votes would change if everything were proportional to population. That final number is damning for Rachel’s view of a world where the Electoral College is a huge structurally racist institutions: 4.80 electoral votes would shift, relative to population. That’s about 0.89% of the EC vote total. Check out the figures for yourself below the break.
Electoral Vote Over and Undercounts, by State and Racial Designation, Weighted by Population
Ordered by Under-representation
|Votes”||Population/EV||% White||% Nonwhite||EV Weight||“EV Over/|
Population and Electoral Vote data, Wikipedia
Racial Breakdown data, US Census 2001
Rachel uses the same population and electoral vote data in her partial tables; I do not know where she gets her racial breakdown numbers. She cites the 2000 Census but does not provide a document or link; her numbers don’t match with anything I found on the Census site. (This table as originally posted used data from the wrong year; I re-ran the calculation using the proper whites-only data from 2000. The difference was about 1 EC vote.)
The only election in US history, offhand, that this could have ever affected was the rancorous Hayes-Tilden race of 1876, which Hayes won by one vote. However, Hayes was the Republican in that race (it goes back), and in 1876, most any black who was able to vote, was voting Republican. So, as far as I am aware, no Presidential election would ever have been swayed or thrown into question by an adjustment such as this, even ignoring the fact that the demographic balances have changed over time.
I believe that Rachel is genuinely concerned about racial issues in this country, and I applaud the fact that she devotes a considerable fraction of her professional energy to raising awareness about racism and its many forms. However, that appreciation and respect does not extend to ignoring errors of analysis or of fact, and on this question, Rachel and the scholars/activists she cites are simply, and completely, wrong. And they and she cannot afford to be. As she herself notes, the students entering her classes (she is a sociology professor at a New York university) are resistant to education on the topic of racism, and defensive. That represents a challenge to the pedagogical process which can only be surmounted with unassailable data and sound analysis. Casually untrue assertions about structural racism are expensive to raising awareness – already-defensive undergraduates whose instructors give them misinterpreted data of this type are not going to adapt an understanding attitude; they are going to assume they are being lied to by someone with an agenda. I do believe that Rachel has an agenda, but I do not believe she is lying – but she is way off base, and if she wants to be taken seriously as a social science scholar, she must improve the quality of the analytical work she is presenting as indisputable facts and final conclusions.
The spreadsheets I used to run this simple analysis are available to anyone who would like to play with the numbers; drop me an e-mail, or leave your e-mail address in the comments.