Adventures in Ethics and Science

Electoral math.

I’ve been thinking about the Electoral College, that mechanism by which voters in the U.S. indirectly elect their president. More precisely, I’ve been wondering whether small modifications in the system might make a significant difference.

When the polls close on Tuesday night and the votes are tallied, the next President of the United States will not be chosen on the basis of which candidate received the most votes cast. Rather, each state (and the District of Columbia) will tally its votes, and whoever wins within each state (or the District) gets all of its electoral votes.

Except for Maine and Nebraska, which I’ll get to in just a moment.

This set up means, for example, that the five electoral votes allocated to Nevada go to whichever presidential candidate wins the most votes cast by those among the slightly more than 1.4 million registered Nevada voters who actually turn out to vote — even if the highest vote getter and the next-highest vote getter are only separated by a single vote.* Being really close counts for exactly nothing so far as the awarding of electoral votes goes.

This isn’t horseshoes.

After the electoral votes are awarded, the candidate who receives the majority of those (270 or more of the 538 total electoral votes available) wins the presidency.**

One of the big issues people have with the Electoral College system is the winner-take-all disposition of each state’s electoral votes. There are two states, Maine and Nebraska, that don’t award their electoral votes this way. Instead, they use popular vote within the state to determine (on a winner-take-all basis) how to award two electoral votes, and they use popular vote within each congressional district to determine how to award the rest of the state’s electoral votes (three of them for Nebraska, two for Maine). This means that Nebraska and Maine could end up awarding electoral votes to more than one candidate, depending on how heterogeneous the vote is.

Here, it’s worth noting that all of the states have (N+2) electoral votes where N = the number of Representatives the state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 = the number of Senators the state has in the U.S. Senate. In other words, the Electoral College system enshrines a kind of protection of the interests of less populous states. The flip side of that is that my vote (in populous California) has less influence on the outcome of presidential elections than does the vote of someone in a sparsely populated state like Montana or Wyoming.

A bunch of people have opined that it might be better of the electoral votes assigned by states actually reflected the proportion of votes supporting the various candidates on the ballot. Nebraska and Maine don’t quite do this, but they seem to come closer to this than do the other states. Folks have also opined that giving low-population states more power in the election outcomes than their proportion of the nationwide population is undemocratic.

So, a few questions for the demographers:

  1. How (if at all) would electoral vote totals have differed in recent elections if all 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded electoral votes using the Maine-Nebraska rules?
  2. How (if at all) would electoral vote totals have differed in recent elections if all 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded all their electoral votes on the basis of the votes within each congressional district? (You’d need to work out how to deal with the extra two electoral votes on top of those which correspond numerically to congressional districts. Is there a way to do that “proportionally”?)
  3. How (if at all) would electoral vote totals have differed in recent elections if all 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded electoral votes on the basis of votes within congressional districts and eliminating the extra two electoral votes corresponding to Senators from each state’s electoral votes? (Note that this would take away the protection or advantage, depending on your perspective, for less populous states.)
  4. How (if at all) would electoral vote totals have differed in recent elections if all 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded all of their electoral votes proportionally to reflect the proportions of votes cast for each candidate statewide?

I don’t kid myself that the political powers that be are going to take any interest in reforming (or even tweaking) the Electoral College system any time soon. After all, those powers have learned how to work the system we have — changing it would require them to change their strategies accordingly. However, I think it’s worth understanding the system as it exists. As things stands now, whose interests are prioritized and whose are minimized? If things were changed in various ways, whose voices might get more attention, and whose less?

*Very small margins between top vote getters tend to trigger automatic recounts.

**Given the current state of the economy, “win” may not be quite the right word this year.


  1. #1 Sarah
    November 3, 2008

    Given mass media, what purpose does the electoral college now serve? Why tweak it instead of moving to a popular vote?

  2. #2 Bryan
    November 3, 2008

    As far as moving to a proportional vote system. CO tried this back in 2004. The Reps funded many adds to shoot this down (primarily because the language included a provision that it would be effective for the 2004 presidential election, and some of CO’s EV’s would have gone to Kerry). I thought it was a good idea then, and I still do. Though I imagine the only way to pass it would be to place it on a ballot during the mid-term (one party or the other would try and defeat it otherwise).

    As far as switching to a popular vote. This is supposed to have been done by now (if you believe good faith promises from politicians). They promised that the first time a candidate won the pop vote but still lost with electoral college math, they would legislate a switch. I think the first time it actually happened was in the 50s if I remember my history (a lot of people think it happened first in 2000, but that is just the most glaring example).

    As for why we keep the electoral college… I have been given 2 reasons on this. First: it forces candidates to campaign away from population centers. MT has been visited several times by Obama (not once by McCain) as a result MT is swinging to blue (hopefully). Whereas with just a popular vote system in place; candidates wouldn’t have to address any of the concerns of MT and its mostly rural population. Second: you don’t change the horse that got you there. This is more plausible I think. You can promise to change the system, but once you get elected changing the system might result in you losing your next term.

    Personally, I would like to see us transition to a proportional electoral college system. I also wouldn’t mind being able to vote for multiple candidates with a weighted vote like the Australian system. But that is just my feelings on the subject.

  3. #3 susan
    November 3, 2008

    The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. In 2004 two-thirds of the visits and money were focused in just six states; 88% on 9 states, and 99% of the money went to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people were merely spectators to the presidential election. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule enacted by 48 states, under which all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.

    In the past six decades, there have been six presidential elections in which a shift of a relatively small number of votes in one or two states would have elected (and, of course, in 2000, did elect) a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill is currently endorsed by 1,181 state legislators — 439 sponsors (in 47 states) and an additional 742 legislators who have cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 21 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and both houses in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes — 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  4. #4 susan
    November 3, 2008

    The small states are the most disadvantaged of all under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus.

    Small states are almost invariably non-competitive in presidential election. Only 1 of the 13 smallest states are battleground states (and only 5 of the 25 smallest states are battlegrounds).

    Of the 13 smallest states, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska regularly vote Republican, and Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC regularly vote Democratic. These 12 states together contain 11 million people. Because of the two electoral-vote bonus that each state receives, the 12 non-competitive small states have 40 electoral votes. However, the two-vote bonus is an entirely illusory advantage to the small states. Ohio has 11 million people and has “only” 20 electoral votes. As we all know, the 11 million people in Ohio are the center of attention in presidential campaigns, while the 11 million people in the 12 non-competitive small states are utterly irrelevant. Nationwide election of the President would make each of the voters in the 12 smallest states as important as an Ohio voter.

    The fact that the bonus of two electoral votes is an illusory benefit to the small states has been widely recognized by the small states for some time. In 1966, Delaware led a group of 12 predominantly low-population states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania) in suing New York in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that New York’s use of the winner-take-all effectively disenfranchised voters in their states. The Court declined to hear the case (presumably because of the well-established constitutional provision that the manner of awarding electoral votes is exclusively a state decision). Ironically, defendant New York is no longer a battleground state (as it was in the 1960s) and today suffers the very same disenfranchisement as the 12 non-competitive low-population states. A vote in New York is, today, equal to a vote in Wyoming–both are equally worthless and irrelevant in presidential elections.

    The concept of a national popular vote for President is far from being politically “radioactive” in small states, because the small states recognize they are the most disadvantaged group of states under the current system.

    As of 2008, the National Popular Vote bill has been approved by a total of seven state legislative chambers in small states, including one house in Maine and both houses in Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It has been enacted by Hawaii.

  5. #5 susan
    November 3, 2008

    Dividing a state’s electoral votes by congressional district would magnify the worst features of our antiquated Electoral College system of electing the President. What the country needs is a national popular vote to make every person’s vote equally important to presidential campaigns.

    If the district approach were used nationally, it would less be less fair and accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country’s congressional districts.

    The district approach would not, as claimed, cause presidential candidates to campaign in a particular state or focus the candidates’ attention to issues of concern to the state. Under the winner-take-all rule (whether applied to either districts or states), candidates have no reason to campaign in districts or states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In North Carolina, there are only 2 districts the 13th with a 5% spread and the 2nd with an 8% spread) where the presidential race is competitive. In California, the presidential race is competitive in only 3 of the state’s 53 districts. Nationwide, there are only 55 “battleground” districts that are competitive in presidential elections. Under the present deplorable state-level winner-take-all system, two-thirds of the states (including North Carolina and California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, seven-eighths of the nation’s congressional districts would be ignored if the a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

  6. #6 susan
    November 3, 2008

    Evidence as to how a nationwide presidential campaign would be run can be found by examining the way presidential candidates currently campaign inside battleground states. Inside Ohio or Florida, the big cities do not receive all the attention. And, the cities of Ohio and Florida certainly do not control the outcome in those states. Because every vote is equal inside Ohio or Florida, presidential candidates avidly seek out voters in small, medium, and large towns. The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate in Ohio and Florida already knows–namely that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the state.

    Further evidence of the way a nationwide presidential campaign would be run comes from national advertisers who seek out customers in small, medium, and large towns of every small, medium, and large state. A national advertiser does not write off Indiana or Illinois merely because a competitor makes more sales in those particular states. Moreover, a national advertiser enjoying an edge over its competitors in Indiana or Illinois does not stop trying to make additional sales in those states. National advertisers go after every single possible customer, regardless of where the customer is located.

  7. #7 Carrie
    November 3, 2008

    As a resident of one of the small states (Hawaii) which is on the tail end of the time zone clock as well, I would really like a popular vote. It is incredibly frustrating to hear on NPR, as we did in 2000, “even Hawaii’s electoral votes will count this year”, as well as to have the election results mostly counted AND reported and the whole thing “wrapped up” before I have voted yet. You know how it is in CA — well we start getting Nat’l election results here at noon. And since our ‘votes don’t count’ because we’re a small state, it doesn’t seem like people really care. A popular vote can’t solve all these issues, but it could at least give my one vote a bit more weight.

  8. #8 chezjake
    November 3, 2008

    Votes by congressional district in the past 4 elections are summarized here:

    Keep in mind in all these discussions of distributing Electoral Votes by Congressional District that each state’s legislature can (and does!) gerrymander it’s Congressional Districts to favor the party(parties) in power. Yes, *parties* — take a look at the New York Congressional District map (where there has long been a Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate):

  9. #9 Robert Jase
    November 3, 2008

    Your proposed tweaks might work but I’d rather dump the whole antiquated system.

  10. #10 Umlud
    November 3, 2008

    How… if at all would the past few elections have been different if American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the American Virgin Islands been given three electoral college votes (similar to that of the only continental territory – Washington, District of Columbia)?

  11. #11 Umlud
    November 3, 2008

    Susan said:

    The small states are the most disadvantaged of all under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus.

    Um…. no. Territories are the most disadvantaged of all under the current system of electing the President. (True, if you had said that ‘small states were the most disadvantaged of all states‘ then I would agree with you, but you didn’t.) Don’t forget that there are American citizens living in territories of this country that are not fully equal under the law – merely because they are living in territories. (Remember, if the former Navy pilot gets elected President, it will be the first time since William Henry Harrison that a President was not born in a state (President Harrison was born in Virgina Colony in 1773 and the former Navy pilot was born in the Panama Canal Zone).

  12. #12 The Ridger
    November 3, 2008

    One of the virtues of the EC (or at least features) is that you can win with a very narrow PV margin and a landslide EV. This makes fighting the result anywhere rather pointless and allows the country to accede to the victory.

    Take 2000. Take 2008.

    As I said, whether this is a virtue or not probably depends on whether you value feigned consensus over prolonged combat.

  13. #13 Travis McDermott
    November 3, 2008

    It is interesting to note that neither Maine nor Nebraska have ever split a vote. Maine has had this system since 1972; Nebraska since 1992.

    More on the story behind Maine’s electoral votes here:

  14. #14 Citronella
    November 4, 2008

    Is there any good reason not to have a direct election, in which the candidate that gets the most popular votes gets elected? Coming from a country where this is how the President is elected, I find the whole Electoral College system quite weird.

  15. #15 Pat Cahalan
    November 5, 2008

    @ Citronella

    > Is there any good reason not to have a direct
    > election, in which the candidate that gets
    > the most popular votes gets elected?

    There are several reasons, you’d have to go through all of them to decide whether or not you think they’re good ones or not. Here’s a reasonable writeup of both sides:

  16. #16 Citronella
    November 6, 2008

    Pat > Thanks for the link, that’s a very interesting reading on the subject.

  17. #17 Paul Camp
    November 15, 2008


    We don’t know when the first time a winner of the popular vote lost the electoral vote for sure since records of popular votes were not kept prior to the election of 1824. However, in that year John Quincy Adams beat Andrew Jackson despite having lost both the popular vote and the electoral vote. There were four main candidates in that race, none of them winning a clear majority, though Jackson won a plurality. One of them, William Crawford, suffered a stroke and the election was decided in the House of Representatives. There, Speaker of the House Henry Clay (also a candidate) threw his support to Adams, and he won a majority of the state delegations, thereby becoming president.

    The next time was 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes was elected with 250,000 fewer votes than Samuel Tilden. Four states, three in the south, were contested due to massive fraud. Hayes did a deal to end Reconstruction and return local control to the south in exchange for their electoral votes.

    Grover Cleveland also was the victim of an electoral college loss in 1888, which is why he served two nonconsecutive terms.

    The point is that this has been going on for a while, not just since the 50’s, and nobody has seen fit to change anything yet.

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