Defending the Electoral College since 2009
There’s a story (possibly apocryphal) of Nobel-prize-winning theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli saying of a student’s paper, “This isn't right. It's not even wrong.” I think Pauli was trying to convey that what he was looking at was so poorly conceived and badly done that the student may as well have turned in a recipe for tuna casserole in place of a physics paper.
Some claims recently made by a National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) lobbyist are getting close to this “not even wrong” territory. In an interview at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference meeting, NPV lobbyist Saul Anuzis made the following claims about illegal immigrants and the Electoral College (comments are at about 3:30).
“With the current Census now being finished, if you take a look at where illegal immigrants live, because of the way we do [the] Census, we count heads not citizens, California for example gets five extra Congressmen [and] therefore five extra electors. And before a single vote is cast, because California’s such a Democratic state, they pick up an extra five votes in the Electoral College. When you net it out nationwide, under the current Census, it looks like the Democrats will have anywhere from a 22 to 26 Electoral College vote advantage because so many more illegal immigrants live in safe Democratic states.”
Other than how the Census is conducted, everything in this is either wrong or edging into “not even wrong” territory.
Because Anuzis is a normal human, he doesn’t provide footnotes as he speaks. But I’m pretty sure I’ve found the two different sources he’s relying on for his claims. First is a 2012 Washington Post op-ed by American University professor of communications Leonard Steinhorn, “Without voting, noncitizens could swing the election for Obama.“ The second is a 2019 report by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), “The Impact of Legal and Illegal Immigration on the Apportionment of Seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020.”
The numbers in the former line up perfectly with his comments about California gaining five seats and also match a slide from a presentation made to the American Legislative Exchange Council by another NPV lobbyist sometime in 2018 or 2019. The latter is the only place I’ve seen numbers as large as what Anuzis is describing is the net effect of immigration on Congressional apportionment, so I’m assuming that’s where the numbers come from (the folks at NPV should drop me a line if I’m wrong about the source, happy to make a correction if need be).
I’ll go in the order in which the errors are made.
First, neither source is based on the “current Census” as claimed – the dates alone are proof of that. The 2012 op-ed relied on 2010 Census data, while the 2019 paper used estimates of what it expected the 2020 Census to show. As it turns out, those estimates were incorrect in guessing a couple of the states that either gained or lost Congressional seats.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, neither one focused on illegal immigrants. The op-ed focuses on all noncitizens, which includes legal residents like green card holders and foreign students on visas. More than three-quarters of noncitizens in the U.S. are here legally.
Anuzis, of course, specifically said “illegal immigrants,” while the op-ed was about a much larger group that includes noncitizens who are here legally.
It goes from “this isn’t right” to “it’s not even wrong” once we move to the CIS study. The first bullet point in report’s summary states:
- The presence of all immigrants (naturalized citizens, legal residents, and illegal aliens) and their U.S.-born minor children will redistribute 26 seats in the House in 2020.
Assuming I’m correct that this is the source of the figure provided by Anuzis, he has radically misunderstood just about everything in this paper. Illegal immigrants are just a small subset of the much larger population examined and that also includes roughly 20 million U.S. citizens. But if you look at the states projected to lose or gain House seats (and thus electoral votes) based on this inflated number and then determine which are “safe” states for one party or the other, it comes to the same high number Anuzis claimed, a net gain of 26 for the Democrats.
Subsequent bullet points in the CIS study whittle down the population by removing certain groups – for example, removing U.S. citizens born to immigrants (legal and illegal) drops the number of “redistributed” U.S. House seats to 18 and a net gain for the Democrats of 21 electoral votes.
The final bullet point in the summary actually provides an estimate of House seats affected by illegal immigration:
- Illegal immigrants alone in the 2020 [Census] will redistribute three seats, with Ohio, Alabama, and Minnesota each having one fewer seat than they otherwise would have had, while California, New York, and Texas will have one additional seat.
The three states projected to lose a seat are evenly split – one competitive state (OH) and one “safe” state each for the Republicans (AL) and Democrats (MN). Two of the states gaining a seat are Democratic strongholds (CA and NY) while one is reliably Republican (TX). All told, the net advantage in the Electoral College to Democrats was projected to be one electoral vote, rather than the claimed 22 to 26.
That’s quite a difference.
As noted previously, however, these numbers aren’t even based on the most recent Census. If you take the most recent Census population count, subtract the estimates of illegal immigrants in each state (found here and here) and then plug the results into the formula used to allocate Congressional seats it finds Idaho (“safe” Republican), Ohio (competitive), and Michigan (competitive) each lose a seat while Texas (“safe” Republican) gains one seat and California (“safe” Democrat) gains two.* The results appear to be the same if all noncitizens, not just those in the country illegally, had been excluded from the apportionment process.
So that’s a net advantage to the Democrats of two electoral votes based on illegal immigration, making it clear that the claim of a Democratic net advantage of 22 to 26 electoral votes is ridiculous and irresponsible, meant to inflame Republicans concerned about illegal immigration.
I’d add that even if it doesn’t result in any partisan advantage, it's a fair criticism of the Congressional apportionment process that it counts non-citizens, in particular those who aren’t in the country legally. But any concern about this and its effect on the Electoral College ought to be weighed against the very real likelihood that under National Popular Vote noncitizens would likely be allowed to vote in some states. I’ll address that in the next blog post.
*Thanks to the computer- and math-savvy daughter of one of the Save Our States team who crunched the numbers!
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