Happy Election Day Eve! If you’re reading this and are eligible to vote in the United States, I hope you’ve already done your civic duty and voted in the 2020 elections. If you haven’t, I implore you to do so tomorrow, especially if you live in a battleground state. Our electoral system may be messed up, but your vote can still have an impact, especially on down-ballot races that are oft overlooked.
Before tomorrow, I wanted to get out one more obligatory post expressing my disdain for our needlessly confusing and utterly absurd electoral system. But instead of going on another rant, I thought it would be interesting if I used numbers to showcase some of the ways in which the Electoral College fails as a method for electing the country’s chief executive. There are countless figures to choose from, but here are the ten I picked out:
Numbers that show the Electoral College defies the popular will:
2.9 million – Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead over Donald Trump in 2016, a margin of 2.1%. That’s a larger margin, both in terms of absolute vote count and percentage of total votes cast, than the popular vote winner won by in 2000, 1976, 1968, and 1960. Trump ultimately received 77 more electoral votes than Clinton en route to the White House.
5 – The number of times since its inception in 1789 that the Electoral College has subverted the popular will by picking a candidate who did not win the popular vote. This has happened twice in the last 20 years alone.
6 – The number of times the Democratic candidate for president has won the popular vote over the last seven presidential elections. Republican candidates have been elected three times in that span. George Bush’s 50.7% share of the popular vote in 2004 is the only time since 1988 that a Republican has won the popular vote for president.
8% – The probability that Joe Biden wins the popular vote while Trump wins the Electoral College, according to FiveThirtyEight on November 2. This may seem low, but that’s approximately one out of every 12 outcomes, equivalent to grabbing two dice and rolling a 4 or a 10. Plenty of less probable things have happened this year alone.
Numbers that show the Electoral College is electorally inefficient:
45.7% – The percentage of people who voted in 2016 that were effectively disenfranchised by the Electoral College because they voted for a candidate who didn’t win their state. Over 62 million votes didn’t factor into the electoral vote whatsoever because of the winner-take-all nature of most state contests.
27.3 million – The minimum number of votes Trump could have received and still been elected president in 2016, assuming the rest of his votes were thrown out. This is because of “wasted votes,” or any votes that didn’t actually contribute to him winning the election. None of the votes for Trump in states he lost contributed to his victory, rendering them wasted. Additionally, any votes in states Trump won above the 270–electoral vote threshold, as well any votes above what was required to beat Clinton in the remaining states, were superfluous. In other words, Trump could have received zero votes in blue states, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Maine and outperformed Clinton by only one vote in the 28 other states and still won the 270 electoral votes required to be elected president. That represents just one-fifth of the total number of 2016 voters, or a popular vote share of 27.1% when the wasted Trump votes are excluded.
26.1% – The difference between the percentage of votes “wasted” under the Electoral College (80%) and the votes that would’ve been wasted under a direct national popular vote (53.9%) in 2016, demonstrating how inefficient our current system is. In simple terms, the number of wasted votes in a winner-take-all election is one less than the difference between the total number of votes and the number of votes for the second place candidate. This is because the winner only needs to beat the second place candidate by one vote to win an election. No other votes contribute to the winning candidate’s victory, so in effect they’re “wasted.” This can be expressed by the following summation function:
where k is the number of winner-take-all contests used to determine the election, ni is the total number of votes cast in contest i, and p2i is the proportion of the vote the second place candidate receives in contest i. In an optimally efficient election, there would be only one contest between two candidates and the winning candidate would receive 50% of the vote plus one, exactly one more vote than the losing candidate. Inevitably, that means one less than half of all votes are wasted at a minimum. But 53.9% is a lot closer to that number than 80%; the efficiency gap between a national popular vote and the Electoral College is staggering.
3.7 – How many times greater a vote counts in Wyoming than it does in California, making voting in large states inefficient. While voters in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania are more likely to influence election outcomes because they’re close to the “tipping point” and receive the bulk of campaign activity, small states wield disproportionately more voting power than large states because of degressive proportionality. Some people get a greater say in who wins just because of where they live.
Numbers that show the Electoral College distorts campaign strategy:
$882 million – The amount of money spent in just six states by both campaigns as of October 13, according to NPR. This figure, which represents almost 9 out of 10 campaign dollars spent to that point, underscores how much the Electoral College influences where candidates campaign by forcing them to focus the bulk of their attention on battleground states.
25 – The number of states (including D.C.) that did not host any campaign events for either Trump or Clinton. These states have a combined 2019 population of 93.8 million people. Of the 26 states that did host events, six of them received almost 70% of the attention, while all but 24 of the 399 total events took place in just 12 states. If a state isn’t deemed competitive, it’s unlikely a campaign will spend resources there, even if that state has a large population; California, Texas, and New York, three of the four most populous states, hosted only two combined events.