The Real Problem with the Electoral College

There’s been a lot of writing over last week and a half about the merits of the electoral college. I heard claims that it favors rural states over urban states, or Democrats over Republicans, or that it originated to protect slavery. I heard that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote shouldn’t we just make her president. All of that misses the mark. And no, Clinton lost the election.

The problem with the electoral college is that it disenfranchises most of the country. Here is a chart of the distributions of the percentage point margins of victory across the 50 states for all the elections in which I’ve been old enough to vote (I’m excluding DC simply for being a huge outlier):

This chart is appalling. What stands out is just how fat this distribution is. A 5% margin can be considered close (e.g. Clinton won VA this year by 4.8%). That has only happened 33 times in the last four elections, 12 of them this year. That’s not a really lot of close and competitive races. On the other hand, a 15% margin is all but predetermined(e.g. Trump won AK by 15.2%, Clinton won Illinois by 16%… those states weren’t exactly in contention), and fully 105 state races in this time frame have been by margins of this size, 28 of them this year.

That’s more than half.

Nine states went blue every election for the last four years by a margin of at least 10% every year (CA, CT, IL, MD, MA, NY, RI, VT plus DC). That is a very comfortable, non-competitive margin. Thirteen states went red in each of these elections by the same margin (AL, AK, ID, KS, KY, LA, MS, NE, OK, TN, UT, WV, WY). Several of these states never even got close to 10%. The narrowest margin for Idaho was a 21.6 point win for McCain. For Massachusetts, a 23.1 point win for Obama against Romney. For all practical purposes, the voters in these 22 states are irrelevant when it comes to selecting the president. We may as well just start the board at 146–81 D.

We’re already at somewhat of a ridiculous starting point. But there’s more. On top of the 22 states listed above, another 10 voted for the same party every year by at least 5% (DE, HI, NJ, and WA for the Democrats and AR, GA, ND, SC, SD, and TX for the Republicans). There were some people hoping for a blue Georgia this year, but it still went for Trump by 5.5 points. That really isn’t particularly close. So really, we can start with 179–150 D, and these 10 states are basically irrelevant too.

The next interesting block of states are those that voted the same party every year but had some close races. Those are worth slightly more consideration:

+===============+=======+=======+=======+=======+
| | 2004 | 2008 | 2012 | 2016 |
+---------------+-------+-------+-------+-------+
| Maine | -9.0 | -17.3 | -15.3 | -2.7 |
| Minnesota | -3.5 | -10.2 | -7.7 | -1.5 |
| New Hampshire | -1.4 | -9.6 | -5.6 | -0.4 |
| Oregon | -4.2 | -16.4 | -12.1 | -10.4 |
| | | | | |
| Arizona | +10.5 | +8.5 | +9.1 | +3.9 |
| Missouri | +7.2 | +0.1 | +9.4 | +19.0 |
| Montana | +20.5 | +2.3 | +13.6 | +20.6 |
+===============+=======+=======+=======+=======+

Some of are still competitive states, but Oregon, Missouri (2008 notwithstanding), and Montana don’t really seem that way. Even calling Arizona competitive seems like a stretch. While not as safe as the other states I’ve so far discarded, it doesn’t particularly bold to predict those for 2020 either. That’s 36 states down, with an electoral vote tally of 186–174 D.

It’s November 2016, and we’re, optimistically, 6 months away from the beginning of the next election season. The amount of uncertainty as to what will happen over the next four years is tremendous. Yet, how many of these 36 will I end up having called wrong in 2020?

That leaves only 15 states that actually are relevant to decide who gets to be the next President of the United States: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

And that is the problem with the electoral college. These are the only states that matter. They’re not particularly urban or rural. They’re not particularly large or small. They just happen to be swing states. The one third of the US population that happen to live in states are the one third that decide who the next president will be.

Want your vote for president to matter? Just pick your target state. Or let’s just finally get rid of the electoral college. I happen to live in one of those irrelevant states and I don’t want to have to move.

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