Electoral Math Made Simple(r)

With 50 states and over 100 million voters, figuring out how citizens share power in a US election is an enormous project. To simplify matters, we invented the imaginary nation of Artesia, a fictional country we just made up.

Artesia is divided into three states: North, Central and South. Each state has one million voters. The nation has two major political parties: the Apples and the Oranges.

How much of a voice do you have in a nation-wide election? It depends on whether the election is direct or divided.

In a direct election, it’s easy to calculate the power of your voice. You have one vote. There are three million total voters. Thus, your influence is 1 in 3,000,000.

In a divided election, it’s a little bit trickier. Your vote helps your candidate carry your state. But in order for a candidate to win, they need to carry two of the three states. You need another state to join you.

Let’s say you live in Central Artesia, and you support the Apple candidate. Your influence in your home state is 1 in 1,000,000—there are 1,000,000 voters, and you are one of them. If the Apple candidate carries a second state, your influence there is 0 in 1,000,000—that state also has 1 million voters, but you aren’t one of them. So, your influence in the two states Apple needs to win is 1 in 2,000,000.

In other words, your vote is 50% more powerful in the divided election than in a direct election. Each vote cast in this system has the same power as 1.5 votes in the direct system.

And, oddly enough, the same holds true for every voter in the country. The divided system has made the entire citizenry 1.5 times more powerful.

How can it be that everyone gets stronger and no one gets weaker? It has to do with the minimum number of votes a candidate needs to win.

  • In a direct election, the candidate need one more than half of the total votes cast—in this case, that’s 1,500,001.
  • In a divided election, they need one more than half of the votes in only part of the nation. In our example, that’s 500,001 in each of two states, or 1,000,002 total—a smaller number.

In each case, you as a citizen get one vote. Your vote moves your candidate one step closer to victory. But in a divided election that journey, though more complicated, ultimately takes a lot fewer steps. Fewer votes are needed to win, so each vote takes on more importance.

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