Electoral College in 2020

Americans are saddled with an archaic method for electing their president. Let's learn some history behind the Electoral College, dispel some myths, and consider its inherit unfairness. For the impatient, I put some frequent claims up here at the top. Supplemental information appears after the FAQ.

A Compendium

You can jump to Sections on this page via the link provided in []'s.


Responses to Common Arguments about the Electoral College

Since several recent elections were won by republicans who lost the Popular Vote (total of all votes cast in US) but won the Electoral College, there have been a good many attempts to justify (or discredit) the Electoral College.


Argument: If the US abolished the Electoral College, New York and California would determine the outcome of every single election.

Response: Not true! Because of the EC, CA and NY electoral votes usually all go to Blue. Because of the EC, No Red votes count in CA or NY NOW. The electoral college's Winner-Take-All provision disenfranchises Red and Blue voters from state to state. Instead, as it is, a handful of SWING states usually determine the outcome, not the big blue or big red states. (See section below on Swing States.)


Argument: The purpose of the EC is to ensure population centers don’t eliminate the voice of the others. Optional claim: By your logic we would eliminate the Senate also!

Response: You assume that population centers are uniformly blue. That's not true. So what if it is?? Every person's vote should count, whether they live in a city or on a farm. All states have Rural Areas. BTW, we already have a national 'Republic' model in the Senate. We don’t also need it in our national elections for President of all Americans. ONE PERSON, ONE VOTE! (See Voting Power above.)


Argument: By only having five states elect the next president, 45 states get left out which is exactly why it's not by popular vote and each state is weighted.

Response 1: Wait, you are saying tht 5 states have more than half of the US Population, and that EVERYONE in those 5 States will vote the same way, ie all red or all blue? This is not the case! Some are solidly red or solidly blue, lean red or lean blue, or are a mix.. purple. What is this 'weighting' you refer to? Can you justify it rationally? Mathematically?

Response 2: The EC actually makes it so a handful of states often DO determine elections. Those states are called the SWING STATES. (See section on Swing States.)

Response 3: (From AOC, not me.) Voters across the country effectively have their voices erased. Millions of Democrats in Texas equal zero electoral votes? Millions of Republicans in California have no impact? That’s not real democracy. It's not fair. Why should the Winner Take All?


Argument: (You hear this a lot, when every anyone mentions that we are a democracy): We aren't a democracy, we are a Constitutional Republic of 50 states!

Response: Is that so? What other country/nations are constitutional republics, and how do they vote? Isn't a constitutional republic just a form of democracy? EVERY OTHER office and position in government, from town hall to governors to the US congress are decided 'democratically' - why treat the Office of President differently?


Argument: You also hear this a lot — Trump won more counties by far. This claim might be accompanied by a graphic that shows a mostly Red USA.

Response 1: Counties have nothing to do with the Electoral College. The word 'County' is not in the COTUS.

Response 2: The redness of the map reflects only that counties are largely uninhabited land. Some super large counties in Oregon have fewer than a dozen people per square mile, all the while showing all the square miles in red. A better visualization shows colored circles for votes, with white empty land, as this example below.

Visualization of 2016 Election

Argument: There are 3,141 counties in the United States. Trump won 3,084 of them. Clinton won 57.

Response: Counties have nothing to do with national elections. The word County does not appear in the US Constitution.


Argument: There are 62 counties in New York State. Trump won 46 of them. Clinton won 16.

Response: So What?


Argument: Clinton won the popular vote by approx. 1.5 million votes.

Response: 3 million.


Argument: In the 5 counties that encompass NYC, (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Richmond & Queens) Clinton received well over 2 million more votes than Trump. (Clinton only won 4 of these counties; Trump won Richmond) Therefore these 5 counties alone, more than accounted for Clinton winning the popular vote of the entire country.

Response: Counties are irrelevant. People vote. One persone one vote.


Argument: These 5 counties comprise 319 square miles. The United States is comprised of 3,797,000 square miles.

Response: Square miles don't vote. People vote. You are just citing Non-sequitor figures that seem to favor trump.


Argument: When you have a country that encompasses almost 4 million square miles of territory, it would be ludicrous to even suggest that the vote of those who inhabit a mere 319 square miles should dictate the outcome of a national election.

Response: HOLY SHIT THIS IS ABSURD. So, my vote should count more if I'm surrounded by square miles of land??

Argument continues. Large, densely populated Democrat cities (NYC, Chicago, LA, etc) don’t and shouldn’t speak for the rest of the country.

Response continued: Why not? What do you mean, the rest of the country. Each person's vote should count, whether in a red state or blue state, urban or rural, armed forces, etc.

Argument continued. And this is WHY you have an Electoral College.

Response continued: Please read this excellent [THREAD] by History Prof Heather Cox Richardson from 2018, 9 tweets, 4 min read


What is the Electoral College, and Why does the US have one?

Citizens vote in a general election in early November. The 'EC' consists of the set of all 'Electors' in each state and DC. The Electors vote in mid December based the outcome of the general election in their state, and then send a signed 'Certificate of Vote' to Congress where all electoral votes are ceremoniously tallied in January (after the new congress is seated!). Note that the Electors meet in their states, but do not (necessarily) travel to Washington DC. The 'college' is virtual, and distributed. (See How does it Work? below.)

The founders were afraid of bare naked democracy. They invented the EC to keep a populist or demagogue from seizing power, and also as a constitutional concession to smaller southern colonies, so they'd join the republic, giving them more voting 'power' than more populous northern states. (See Voting Power below.)


How does the Electoral College work? (Some details)

Each state has as many electors in the Electoral College as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress. The District of Columbia has three (3) electors. So, Number of reps f(pop) + Number of senators (2) = Number of Electoral Votes for a state. If you do all the arithmetic, there are 435 + 100 + 3 = 538 electoral votes to be won or lost, in chunks.

Each state has a rule for how they choose electors. (Actually, political parties set their rules for selection of their electors.) In Oregon and other states, there are designated sets of electors, one set for each bonafide political party. (Bonafide Parties are determined in each state.) So, the Democrats have a set of 'electors', as do Republicans, Working Families Party, Libertarians, and so on. Once the state election is held, the party of the presidential candidate that wins the state determines the set of electors that will vote when the Electoral 'College' meets in that state, on the same day in mid-December. All States' electoral votes are then tallied in a special session of of the New congress in January. (See also the first paragraph in 'What is the Electoral College' above.)

To be clear, there isn't just one set of electors in each state whose job it is to vote accordingly — there may be three, four, five or more sets! Most Electors will never get to vote, because one of the two main parties (D) or (R) usually dominates.

In practice, the outcome of the Electoral Vote process can be inferred soon after the general election takes place because electors are 'pledged' to vote to support the winner in their state's election. So, in the past, little attention has been paid to the Electoral College itself and election night coverage talks as if candidates have Won X number of electoral votes.

If for whatever reason, no winner is selected by the Electoral College, then all bets are off and a Contingent Election is held. See the section titled The Possibility of a Contingent Election on My Electoral Proclamation (2016) page. See also the Wikipedia article on [Contingent Election]


The Winner-Take-All Provision

Most states allocate all their Electors (Electoral Votes) to one candidate or the other, known as Winner Take All. Note that two small states (Nebraska, Maine) can divide their EVs between candidates.

The Winner-Take-All provision most states use to award electoral votes is NOT in the COTUS. Binding of electors is 'rigging' introduced by State political parties after the Framers of the US Constitution were long gone.

It’s not a federal election rule. In fact it’s unfair, and violates the Equal Protection clause of the constitution. (See Lawrence Lessig's articles at the end of the page for more on that.)


An Info-Graphic to Consider

Rather than showing a MAP of the US, with land area, I realized that each state should be shown with its size (area) representing how many EVs it has. This is my own representation, using those states called by 'AP', and those not called (in gray). This chart does not (yet) show Maine or Nebraska splits.

The number of Electoral Votes states have, represented truly by squares.

For an excellent collection of various graphics representing the electoral votes, see [NYT].


A Tyranny Of The Majority?

The Whole point of the EC isn't to prevent the tyranny of the majority as often claimed. According to Alexander Hamilton, the EC also to protects against the rise of a demagogue, such as Donald Trump. Obviously, it failed in that regard because political parties in most states REQUIRE the electors to simply vote who they are 'pledged' to. And so even though it had become obvious that Trump had bullied his way onto the GOP Primary ballot, and the GOP Party was then obligated to nominate Trump at their convention, the Electoral College was likewise unprepared to discharge their constitutional duty — this had never happened here before.

The EC is comprised of 435 electors (one for each representative assigned by census, ie population) plus 100 electors (2 senators per state) plus 3 more electors for Washington DC (which has neither a rep or senator) — that is 538, the total number of electors. It's like adding apples and oranges!

538 is a meaningless number, and no one has ever 'validated' this formula. Because of these funky numbers (and winner-take-all), a candidate can win the EC by winning a slim majority of the popular votes 11 states, while not winning a single vote in the remaining 39 states — and conversely, lose by winning (only) the opposite set of states! (See Exercise #3.)

The EC supposedly protects the little states from the big states ('big' meaning population). The probable outcome of many states is well known, while other critical states can go either way. These are the dozen or so 'Swing States'. Who will protect us from the precarious Swing States? Flip a Coin, and recount just to be sure.


What is Voting Power?

Voting Power varies wildly by state. Wyoming has three electoral votes and a population of 586,107, while California has 55 electoral votes and 39,144,818 residents. Distributing the electoral vote evenly among each state’s residents suggests that individual votes from Wyoming carry 3.6 times more influence, or weight, than those from California. Is this Fair?!

Recommended reading - this article by Martin LaMonica in The Conversation. Whose votes count the least in the Electoral College? [LINK]. The article has several pertinent interactive charts.

Here's a letter in response to Why should Wyoming voters have more power than Californians? Ref. [LATimes]

To the editor: While Goldberg may be correct that direct voting without the electoral college would pressure candidates to cater to the largest population centers at the expense of less densely populated regions, the opposite happens now. Battleground states get the lion’s share of political advertising and campaign events while large populated states like California and New York get ignored. The electoral college also tends to over-value rural voters.

If democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, as Churchill is reported to have said, then it must be because it is the only system that allows for the widest participation of its citizens through the process of voting. The logical extension of that is one person, one vote.

Chris Fite, Spring Valley

Google will show you many more articles on this subject.


What are Battleground / Toss-up / Swing States?

Politicians don't campaign everywhere simply because many 'markets' are solid blue or red and there's little to gain by campaigning there. Instead, they campaign in 'Battleground' States that are 'close' and could swing one way or another.. These 'Swing States' are not clearly red or blue. Every state has some red and some blue. A handful of swing states determine the outcome of the presidential election. Swing states vary from time to time.

Swing states are also known as Toss Up states, because they are close. (Is there any difference between Toss Up and Swing??)

We are the UNITED SWING STATES OF AMERICA.


WHAT CAN BE DONE? A Proposal for a National Popular Vote

See the National Popular Vote [NPV] which explains what’s wrong and offers a fix that does not require amending the US Constitution. See also [Fix the College]

In case you didn't click on NPV above -- here's the deal... What if a collection of states decided on their own, that IF 'enough' other states pledged to assign their electoral votes to the winner of the POPULAR VOTE, they would all do that? How many states would that be? Answer: A set of states whose electoral votes (currently) add to 270, or more. Think about it. IF JUST THOSE STATES did that, they'd have to power to determine the election outcome via popular vote, without amending the COTUS, and without the other states having fewer than 270 electoral votes. This could happen. A number of states have already signed on. Check it out.

Further, once this happens. the other states many as well join the 'compact'... or not - does not matter... Beyond that, the Electoral College could be removed from the COTUS, and states would have no grounds to object. They could object, but the situation would be far more conducive for eliminating the effectively neutralized Electoral College. It was a bad idea to begin with.


Exercises

DATA. Here are the number of electoral votes the 51 states and DC have: 55 38 29 29 20 20 18 16 16 15 14 13 12 11 11 11 11 10 10 10 10 9 9 9 8 8 7 7 7 6 6 6 6 6 6 5 5 5 4 4 4 4 4 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3. (Your iDevice may see this series as an international phone number!)

1. Just for fun, think of the election as a game, like NIM. We take turns 'taking' the states. To start, You take the Largest, I take the next largest, and so on. When done, you would win, 284-254. Show your results.

2. Is a 269-269 tie possible with these 51 numbers?? (If so how?)

3. A recent math paper, 270: How to Win the Presidency With Just 17.56% of the Popular Vote, by Chuck Wessell at Gettysburg College, explores just how low one might go, and still win an election. Excerpt:

Pólya’s 1960 solution estimated that by winning the 38 orange-shaded states by the smallest possible margin while receiving no votes in the unshaded states a candidate could be elected president with 22.1 percent of the popular vote. Using the actual vote totals from that election one can show that the 1960 winner could have received as little as 19.12 percent of the popular vote.

The paper lays out the math behind this, and the runs data from different elections.

If you have some ideas on how to improve on Pólya’s result for a particular election, go to Taylor & Francis Group, APPROACHES TO VOTING [LINK]. There you can also find a spreadsheet with state-by-state vote totals for all presidential elections back to 1960.

4. Define your own Enquiry or make your own graphic.. Here are the raw numbers, without any leanings red/white/or blue. Email me if you want this as a 51 row spreadsheet.

55x1=55	CA
38x1=38	TC
29x2=58	FL,NY
20x2=40	IL,PA
18x1=18	OH
16x2=32	GA,MI
15x1=15	NC
14x1=14	NJ
13x1=13	VA
12x1=12	WA
11x4=44	AZ,IN,MA,TN
10x4=40	MD,MN,MO,WI
 9x3=27	AL,CO,SC
 8x2=16	KY,LA
 7x3=21	CT,OK,OR
 6x6=36	AR,IO,KS,MS,NV,UT
 5x3=15	NE*,NM,WV
 4x5=20	HI,ID,ME*,NH,RI
 3x8=24	AK,DE,DC,MT,ND,SD,VT,WY

Total=538 electors. 538 is even. Exactly half is 269, so 270 is the magic number of votes needed to win a simple majority. Exercise left for the reader: investigate Nebraska and Maine footnotes.

5. Take the Electoral College Quiz [QUIZ]


Split Electoral Votes in Maine and Nebraska

Maine and Nebraska do not go by Winner-Take-All. Using the 'Congressional District Method', these states allocate one electoral vote to the popular vote winner in each congressional district (2 in Maine, 3 in Nebraska), and two electoral votes to the state popular vote winner. These two bonus EVs correspond to the number of US Senators for the state, sometimes called the 'presidential electors'. So Maine has 4 EVs and Nebraska as 5 EVs.

Pure math/logic speculation (on my part) on possible outcomes:

  1. one candidate wins all districts, and both presidential electors
  2. one candidate wins one or two districts but the other candidate wins the state-wide popular vote, and gets the two presidential electors.
  3. Are there any other possibilites?
  4. Unknown -- Do they ever split the presidential electors?

A split has occurred once in each of these states. Read more here about why this would not be a good idea for all 50 states: [FAIRVOTE].


Glossary/Definitions

Swing State, aka Battleground State - Most states are predictably red or blue, not solid red or solid blue, but they historically vote either red or blue. Swing States are actually more purple, and can go either way. That's why they are called Battleground States, where the candidates have to battle it out to win votes.

Winner-Take-All is the notion that a candidate gets all of the Electoral Votes for a State no matter how slim the margin. This technically disenfranchises many voters in each state. Normally, the EV and Pop vote yield the same results. Winner-Take-All is not in the US Constitution, but rather was added by later-formed political parties at the state level. (Rigging!)

A Firewall - What's up with that?

Faithless Elector - (old term) An elector that does not vote for their party's candidate.

Moral Elector - (2016) Any elector who places their conscience above party allegiance.

Conscientious Elector - (2016) Another name for Faithless or Moral elector.

Rogue Elector - (2016) Another name for Faithless or Moral elector.

Hamilton Elector - (2016) A Blue State Elector who would offer to Not vote for Clinton, but vote for an as-yet-unidentified Republican for president, as a way of persuading Red state electors not to vote Trump, but for a surrogate candidate. This was nuts, because they would have had to gather 270 votes for the surrogate, and no willing surrogate emerged.

Unpledged Elector - An elector in a state that doesn't require a pledge or binding.


References / Further Reading

  • Very nice interactive 2020 Electoral College Map on [PBS]
  • Dynamic article, 2020 President: Consensus Electoral Map [270 to Win]
  • Static article, The Path to 270 in 2020, By Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin October 24, 2019. [Path to 270 in 2020]
  • Wikipedia on Electoral College [LINK]
  • What If All States Split Their Electoral Votes? [LINK]
  • Why Do Maine and Nebraska Split Electoral Votes? (Excellent history!) [LINK]
  • Wikipedia on Unpledged Elector [LINK]
  • Wikipedia on Contingent Election [LINK]

  • Electoral College Home Page [LINK]
  • FAQ on Electoral College [LINK]
  • @ElectoralCollge on Twitter (minus an 'e'... limited by early Twitter naming rules [LINK]
  • Alexander Hamilton's Federalist No. 68 explains the Electoral College. [LINK]
  • Alexis de Tocqueville's De la Démocratie en Amerique (Democracy in America) is cited sometimes for earlier insights about Americans, and so on. I didn't find anything specifically applicable. Feedback welcome. See Election of the President in the middle of Chapter VIII: The Federal Constitution — Part I. Here is the Table of Contents for all the volumes: [TOC]
  • Wikipedia on Eye of Providence [LINK]

Articles about the unfairness Electoral College

  • This article by Lawrence Lessig is direct and authoritative: The Constitution lets the electoral college choose the winner. They should choose Clinton. One objection to Lessig's article could be that the Electors are said to be advised by the popular vote. But which popular vote - the vote of their State or of the nation, or both? This is the constitutional question. There were 10,000+ comments on it in 2016. [LINK]
  • The Equal Protection argument against winner take all in the Electoral College, by (Lawrence) Lessig, on [Medium]

This page Composed in Oregon by John E. Miller, parker75 at gmail.com, September 25th, 2020. Last updated November 3, 2020..