Math and The Electoral College

With the election looming, and yet another Presidential Debate this evening (anyone else dreading it?) and more polls than you can shake a stick at, it seems appropriate to think about the math behind the Electoral College. I admit to really not understanding this whole system – and I know I am not alone. With the rampant conspiracy theories about the November 8 election, and a ‘rigged election’ and cries to eliminate the Electoral College and go to a popular vote only, it had me diving into “what does the Electoral College mean, why do we vote this way, and is it fair?” I think this is a GREAT conversation and critical thinking activity to have with students, especially in classes like statistics where you can actually study and do ‘mock votes’ and see what the outcomes are with or without the Electoral College.

A quick summary of what the Electoral College is – and please note, I still am a little iffy about whether I truly get it. In 1787 the delegates of the Constitutional Congress made the decision to do this indirect way of voting for the President of the USA. It was a compromise between those who wanted a) individual citizens to vote for President (1 person, 1 vote, majority wins); b) letting State legislators choose the President; or c) letting congress choose the next President. The idea was to create a method where the best candidate was chosen. Individuals in a state vote for President – the winner in that state gets all the states electoral votes (though some split the electoral votes now), and the electors (who are elected by voters),  put in the final vote for President. The person who gets the majority of Electoral Votes (270 or more) wins. Still confused? How is this fair?  Bear with me….I am hoping I can figure that out myself!

If you look at the image above, which outlines the number of Electoral votes per state, you can see a huge difference – some states have an enormous number of Electoral Votes, and some very few. As you can see – size might matter (CA, TX, FL), but not always – VA is relatively small and yet has 13 Electoral Votes compared to say Montana, a larger state with only 3 Electoral Votes. So – how is the number of Electoral Votes determined? Hawaii gets 4 vs the very large state of Alaska only 3. So – it must have something to do with population numbers, which in fact is the case. The number of Electoral Votes is the number of state representatives in Congress (both Senate and House of Representatives), which are based on the population of the state. Every state will have at least 3 Electoral Votes (2 Senators, 1 Congressman). Obviously you now see why winning states like CA, TX, FL, PA, and NY are so crucial because of their large populations and large number of Electoral Votes.

I have been reading a lot and searching for good websites that might be helpful for teachers wanting to figure this out with their students. There are several sites that talk about the Electoral College and what it is – I didn’t find these too helpful from a teaching perspective, but they may be of interest to some of you from a historical, “why do we do this” perspective.

  1. Nice interactive map –
  2. Article about the ‘fair or unfair’ aspect of Electoral College and the funding – not sure it answers the questions but makes you think:
  3. This is a nice site with lots of historical perspective and answers to questions, like does my vote count?
  4. This article makes a case for the Electoral College system being fair:

Here are some sites I found that would be helpful for doing some simulations and having interesting conversations with students. Many of these are interactive, with the ability to create election results (or simulated) to get a better understanding of how the Electoral College system works, and hopefully make a determination about whether it is fair or not.

  1. This was my favorite – be sure to check out the “Play Presidential Politics” link, as it has a simulation vote where you can create your own populations for states.  Would be great for students.
  2. Lots of information (some of which I used) in kid-friendly language:
  3. Nice lesson here – some interaction/lesson plan info as well:
  4. Yummy Math – nice lesson here (using the picture above!)
  5. From NCTM – a lesson on the “fairness” of the elections – Love Illuminations!

So – is it fair or not fair? Does your vote count? I am not sure I can give you a definitive answer. It probably depends who you are, who you want to win, and where you live. But, in my readings looking at several charts that compared the ‘weights’ of individual votes toward the outcome (i.e. Does your vote count?), I think my personal opinion is yes, your vote does count, and yes, it is fair.

Notice Alaska, with a smaller population, has a much more weighted vote compared to CA. This may not seem fair – but, Alaska, a huge state with many diverse needs and interests but with a small population, deserves an equal representation in the government, which may not happen in a one-vote majority rule election, if we look at populations sizes of CA or NY, with their enormous populations. This is why the Electoral College was created in the first place – so every state gets a fair share of representation for their interests in the outcome, no matter their populations size, and those ‘states’ with larger populations don’t end up  deciding everything. NY’s interests are vastly different than Alaska’s, after all. A popular vote would be unfair because those larger states, who lean more one way or another, would control the outcome, leaving those states with fewer people, left out of the equation, and their interests not accounted for or lost in the process. My personal conclusion – I am actually for the Electoral College, after all my reading and my still foggy, but much better, understanding of the system.

One final note – look at the overall United States (in chart above) – the total population, the total Electoral votes, and the weight of each individual vote.  It’s 1.

So YES – your vote counts – get out and VOTE!  (And make it an educated vote, based on candidates proposed policies and plans – not based on emotion).