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Electoral College Distortions: "Winner" could lose popular vote by a landslide

by Matt Morris // Published February 7, 2011

It's no surprise that the Electoral College distorts the popular vote. This can be seen in any presidential election where the electoral votes are disproportionately allocated to one candidate or another. Additionally, the amount of voters does not directly correspond with the electoral votes a state gives to a candidate.

The expectation is that the Electoral College will inflate the popular vote winner’s margin, but it might not. We decided to look at the 2008 election for a “worst case scenario” of just how few popular votes Barack Obama really needed to earn a majority of the vote in the Electoral College.  We didn’t touch John McCain’s votes, but eliminated all the “unnecessary” votes earned by Obama – meaning all of his votes in states he didn’t’ need to win and any “surplus” votes earned in states he wins (meaning any votes beyond one more than McCain).

The findings are striking:

·         President Obama could have defeated Sen. John McCain in the Electoral College with as few as 24,781,169 popular votes despite McCain earning 59,479,469 votes. In other words, he could have won even while losing the popular vote by 69% to 29% (with 2% for other).

·         Looking only at states that he actually won, Obama could have carried enough states to earn 270 electoral votes with just 26,721,494 votes – meaning with a popular vote defeat by 68% to 30%.

Here’s more on how we did the analysis. First, we focused on states that have low ratios of electoral votes to popular votes, allowing us to measure the inequality of popular votes between states.

Take California and Wyoming. California has 55 electoral votes, and Wyoming has 3. In the 2008 election, there were 13,561,900 voters in California and 254,658 voters in Wyoming. If we divide the total number of voters per electoral votes, California ends up with 246,580 voters per electoral vote, and Wyoming has 84,886 voters per electoral vote. In this case, it is very clear to see that the vote cast in Wyoming can make more of a difference in determining where electoral votes go. Additionally, it shows how votes in one state matter more than votes in other states; not all votes are equal.

It’s not just population size, of course. Turnout matters too, as low turnout has no affect on a state’s number of electoral votes. So you need relatively few popular votes to win a low turnout state.

In addition, due to the nature of a winner-take-all system, the candidate who receives at least one more vote than their opponent will win the state and all of its electoral votes. For example, in Washington DC, Obama won with 92% of the vote (with 245,800 votes), while McCain only received 6.5% of the vote (with 17,367 votes). Winning by 92% is essentially overkill when it comes to winning electoral votes. Obama could have won DC's 3 electoral votes with only one more vote than McCain (17,368). It isn't really necessary for Obama to gain those other 228,433 votes because gaining a plurality is all that matters in the current Electoral College set-up.

By extending this example across the United States, we can see theoretically how few popular votes Obama can receive in order to win each individual state. States are in order of number of voters per electoral vote. (Note that being high up on this list does not mean that state is getting anything particular out of the Electoral College. Nearly all of these states are ignored by presidential candidates because they aren’t considered “swing” states.)

State Electoral Votes in State Obama 2008 McCain 2008 McCain+1 (What Obama Needed to Win) Running Total of Electoral Votes Obama Won State?
District of Columbia 3 245,800 17,367 17,368 3 Yes
Hawaii 4 325,871 120,566 120,567 7 Yes
Vermont 3 219,262 98,974 98,975 10 Yes
Rhode Island 4 296,571 165,391 165,392 14 Yes
Delaware 3 255,459 152,374 152,375 17 Yes
Wyoming 3 82,868 164,958 164,959 20 No
North Dakota 3 141,278 168,601 168,602 23 No
Alaska 3 123,594 193,841 193,842 26 No
South Dakota 3 170,924 203,054 203,055 29 No
Nevada 6 533,736 412,827 412,828 35 Yes
New Mexico 5 472,422 346,832 346,833 40 Yes
Maine* 4 421,923 295,273 295,275 44 Yes
New Hampshire 4 384,826 316,534 316,535 48 Yes
West Virginia 5 303,857 397,466 397,467 53 No
Montana 3 231,667 242,763 242,764 56 No
Connecticut 7 997,772 629,428 629,429 63 Yes
Nebraska, District 2** 1 138,892 135,567 135,568 64 Yes
California 55 8,274,473 5,011,781 5,011,782 119 Yes
New York 29 4,769,700 2,742,298 2,742,299 148 Yes
Maryland 10 1,629,467 959,862 959,863 158 Yes
Utah 6 327,670 596,030 596,031 164 No
Idaho 4 236,440 403,012 403,013 168 No
Massachusetts 11 1,904,097 1,108,854 1,108,855 179 Yes
Illinois 20 3,419,673 2,031,527 2,031,528 199 Yes
Washington 12 1,750,848 1,229,216 1,229,217 211 Yes
Oregon 7 1,037,291 738,475 738,476 218 Yes
Arkansas 6 422,310 638,017 638,018 224 No
Arizona 11 1,034,707 1,230,111 1,230,112 235 No
Iowa 6 828,940 682,379 682,380 241 Yes
South Carolina 9 862,449 1,034,896 1,034,897 250 No
New Jersey 14 2,215,422 1,613,207 1,613,208 264 Yes
Kansas 6 514,765 699,655 699,656 270 No
Texas 38 3,528,633 4,479,328     No
Colorado 9 1,288,576 1,073,589     Yes
Mississippi 6 554,662 724,597     No
Indiana 11 1,374,039 1,345,648     Yes
Wisconsin 10 1,677,211 1,262,393     Yes
Minnesota 10 1,573,354 1,275,409     Yes
Michigan 16 2,872,579 2,048,639     Yes
Georgia 16 1,844,137 2,048,744     No
Kentucky 8 751,985 1,048,462     No
Virginia 13 1,959,532 1,725,005     Yes
Pennsylvania 20 3,276,363 2,655,885     Yes
Tennessee 11 1,087,437 1,479,178     No
Oklahoma 7 502,496 960,165     No
Florida 29 4,282,074 4,045,624     Yes
Alabama 9 813,479 1,266,546     No
North Carolina 15 2,142,651 2,128,474     Yes
Louisiana 8 782,989 1,148,275     No
Missouri 10 1,441,911 1,445,814     No
Ohio 18 2,933,388 2,674,491     Yes
Total   68,690,799 59,479,469 24,781,169    



In this hypothetical case, Obama becomes president with 270 electoral votes, but only 24,781,169 popular votes. Taking into account the total number of votes casted in 2008, the theoretical minimum number of votes Obama received is 19%.

In order to make this scenario somewhat more plausible, we can apply this McCain's count +1 to states Obama won in the 2008 election.

State Electoral Votes Obama, 2008 McCain McCain+1 (What Obama Needed to Win) Running Total of Electoral Votes Obama Won State?
District of Columbia 3 245,800 17,367 17,368 3 Yes
Hawaii 4 325,871 120,566 120,567 7 Yes
Vermont 3 219,262 98,974 98,975 10 Yes
Rhode Island 4 296,571 165,391 165,392 14 Yes
Delaware 3 255,459 152,374 152,375 17 Yes
Nevada 6 533,736 412,827 412,828 23 Yes
New Mexico 5 472,422 346,832 346,833 28 Yes
Maine* 4 421,923 295,273 295,275 32 Yes
New Hampshire 4 384,826 316,534 316,535 36 Yes
Connecticut 7 997,772 629,428 629,429 43 Yes
California 55 8,274,473 5,011,781 5,011,782 98 Yes
New York 29 4,769,700 2,742,298 2,742,299 127 Yes
Maryland 10 1,629,467 959,862 959,863 137 Yes
Massachusetts 11 1,904,097 1,108,854 1,108,855 148 Yes
Illinois 20 3,419,673 2,031,527 2,031,528 168 Yes
Washington 12 1,750,848 1,229,216 1,229,217 180 Yes
Oregon 7 1,037,291 738,475 738,476 187 Yes
New Jersey 14 2,215,422 1,613,207 1,613,208 201 Yes
Colorado 9 1,288,576 1,073,589 1,073,590 210 Yes
Indiana 11 1,374,039 1,345,648 1,345,649 221 Yes
Wisconsin 10 1,677,211 1,262,393 1,262,394 231 Yes
Minnesota 10 1,573,354 1,275,409 1,275,410 241 Yes
Michigan 16 2,872,579 2,048,639 2,048,640 257 Yes
Virginia 13 1,959,532 1,725,005 1,725,006 270 Yes
Iowa 6 828,940 682,379     Yes
Pennsylvania 20 3,276,363 2,655,885     Yes
Florida 29 4,282,074 4,045,624     Yes
North Carolina 15 2,142,651 2,128,474     Yes
Ohio 18 2,933,388 2,674,491     Yes
Wyoming 3 82,868 164,958     No
North Dakota 3 141,278 168,601     No
Alaska 3 123,594 193,841     No
South Dakota 3 170,924 203,054     No
West Virginia 5 303,857 397,466     No
Montana 3 231,667 242,763     No
Nebraska** 5 333,319 452,979     No
Utah 6 327,670 596,030     No
Idaho 4 236,440 403,012     No
Arkansas 6 422,310 638,017     No
Arizona 11 1,034,707 1,230,111     No
South Carolina 9 862,449 1,034,896     No
Kansas 6 514,765 699,655     No
Texas 38 3,528,633 4,479,328     No
Mississippi 6 554,662 724,597     No
Georgia 16 1,844,137 2,048,744     No
Kentucky 8 751,985 1,048,462     No
Tennessee 11 1,087,437 1,479,178     No
Oklahoma 7 502,496 960,165     No
Alabama 9 813,479 1,266,546     No
Louisiana 8 782,989 1,148,275     No
Missouri 10 1,441,911 1,445,814     No
Total   68,885,226 59,796,881 26,721,494    


* Maine divides its electoral votes depending on congressional district. In these scenarios, Obama wins all of the electoral votes.

** Nebraska also divides its electoral votes depending on congressional district. The first scenario gives Obama 1 electoral votes, but in the second scenario none of Nebraska’s votes are in play.

Here we see Obama winning with 270 electoral votes, but with only 26,721,494 popular votes, which is only 21% of the popular vote.

Therefore, it is possible to receive an incredibly small amount of the popular vote, but still win the presidential election. This has enormous consequences for the legitimacy of our democracy.

Source: http://www.fec.gov/pubrec/fe2008/2008presgeresults.pdf