Presidential math

On November 4, America will go to the polls and choose its next president. But we do not vote for the president directly. Rather, we vote for electors to represent our state in the Electoral College, and they ultimately choose the president.

By a strange quirk of math, voting in an indirect, divided election such as this actually gives vote4rs more power than if we voted in a direct election. The best way to explain is through an example:

  • In 2004, over 121 million people voted for the top two candidates. If we had held a direct election, the winner would need one more than half of those votes—60,500,001. (Roughly.)
  • But in our electoral system, a candidate doesn’t need a majority in the entire nation. Instead, they need to win a majority in the ten largest states. In 2004, those states had a combined voting population of over 66 million. So a candidate would need only 33,000,010 votes to win.

So, your favorite candidate needs only about half as many votes to win a divided election as they would to win a direct election. Which means your vote has the potential to be worth almost twice as much!

But what if you don’t live in one of the ten biggest states? That’s OK—those states almost always split between the major candidates, so that voters in other states also become crucial to winning the election.

It is true that under the Electoral College system, there are years when your vote doesn’t matter at all. But in the years that it does matter, it matters so much that, on average, you still come out ahead.

We recently put together a web exhibit to demonstrate this phenomenon. It includes an interactive calculator that allows you to change the voting populations of states and see how this affects voting power.

The exhibit is a simplified version of the work of Dr. Alan Natapoff, a physicist at MIT who first figured this out. You can find a nice summary of his work here,and an update here.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

miss marta mae's picture
miss marta mae says:

i wouldnt agree on wat ursayn

posted on Thu, 10/23/2008 - 12:07pm
jimh's picture
jimh says:

What, exactly, wouldn't you agree with?

posted on Thu, 10/23/2008 - 12:20pm
DO's picture
DO says:

You missed the fact that voters in a state like Wyoming have extra credit with their votes. Why you ask? Each state gets one electoral vote for each senator and representative. A state like Wyoming that only has enough population (1/435) for one Representative gets 3 votes because of having 2 senators. That is, they get 3/535 electoral votes when they should get 1/435. That's the real reason Bush won in 2000 -- he won nearly all the western states which have extra representation in the electoral college. Don't need to be a Prof to figure that one out!

posted on Fri, 10/31/2008 - 3:24pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

All states get two extra electoral votes. In fact, that's what makes the system work -- without it, you'd just have a lo-res version of the popular vote.

posted on Sun, 11/09/2008 - 7:31pm
DO's picture
DO says:

sorry Gene, didn't see your comment before. The low population states do get overrepresentation due to getting 2 votes on top of what their population would justify. MN has mmore than 8 times the population of Wyoming yet gets only 10 elrctoral votes to Wyomings 3. The answer is in the numbers. I

t's all due to being a federal republic. Remember, when the constitution was written senators were elected by state legislators not the voters at large.

posted on Fri, 06/12/2009 - 3:13pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

You are correct -- it is due to our being a federal republic, a union of independent states. Originally, each state viewed itself as a more-or-less separate country, which had allied with its neighbors to promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense, that kind of stuff. When trying to decide how to govern this alliance, there was a split. The large states wanted power to be distributed proportionately; the smaller states, not wishing to be overwhelmed, wanted it distributed equally. So they compromised and did both: the House of Representatives has proportional distribution; the Senate has equal distribution. The Electoral College combines these two ideas into one system.

Thus, Wyoming is not "overrepresented." It receives precisely the amount of representation -- in the House, in the Senate, and in the Electoral College -- that the Constitution calls for. It only seems overrepresented if you think that all elections are supposed to be by direct popular vote. However, that is not what the Constitution calls for.

In the years prior to the writing of the Constitution, some states found that direct popular vote could lead to something akin to mob rule. To avoid this problem, the Constitution established several different types of elections. Members of the House of Representatives represent the interests of the people; they were elected by direct popular vote. Senators represent the interests of their state; as you note, they were elected by the state legislatures. The president was elected by the Electoral College. Federal judges and department secretaries (Cabinet members) weren't elected at all, but appointed by the president and approved by Congress. So, direct election applied to only one part of one branch of the federal government. There is no reason to assume it is the norm.

(Actually, there were no Senators at the time the Constitution was written -- the Senate did not exist until the Constitution was ratified and put into effect.)

posted on Fri, 06/12/2009 - 10:56pm
shonikqua  green's picture
shonikqua green says:

think math is cool and thats why i look at these articles.

posted on Fri, 06/12/2009 - 2:57pm

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