The Math of the Electoral College

Map of the United States
Credit: National Atlas of the United States, June 2005, http://nationalatlas.gov

Every four years, Americans participate in a presidential election. However, we do not vote for president. Rather, we vote for electors who represent our state in a second round of voting. The candidate who wins a state wins its electors, and those people—called the Electoral College—actually vote for the president.

Some people think this system is unfair. They argue that if your candidate loses in your state, then your vote “doesn’t count” in the Electoral College. They feel we should have a direct election for president—every citizen gets one vote, and whoever gets the most votes should win.

Other people believe the Electoral College has many benefits. Among other things, the system keeps small states from being overwhelmed by big states, and rural areas from being overshadowed by cities.

Historically, the Electoral College was created as a compromise that allowed the 13 original states—which viewed themselves as separate, independent nations—to cooperate and choose a central government.

Power to the people

While politicians and pundits debate the merits of the Electoral College, mathematicians have made a surprising discovery: Dividing a national election into many separate state elections actually increases the power of each citizen’s vote. As an individual voter, you, in the long run, have more influence on the outcome of presidential elections under the Electoral College system than you would in direct, national elections.

How much more depends on the number of states, their populations and how the electoral votes are distributed. But in every case, the Electoral College increases each voter’s influence.

We’ve created a computer model that lets you create your own country and see how voter power increases in different situations.

To learn more about the Electoral College, its history and how it works, explore the links on the right.