How to (Theoretically) Win a 2-Party Presidential Election with Just 21.8% of the Popular Vote

In an extreme case, consider the following electoral map:

Of course, this is nonsensical as DC is red and Texas is blue, but let’s assume this happened for the sake of argument. Despite the map being overwhelmingly red, the red states win the electoral vote by only the slightest margin of 270 to 268.

Let us assume that every single state was nearly evenly split, something like 50.01% to 49.99%. Then even though the red states won the electoral vote, the blue states contain 56.4% of the population, thus the blue candidate actually wins the popular vote 56.4% to 43.6%, a huge lead.

Now, suppose the vote was nearly even in the red states, but let the blue candidate win 100% of the vote in all the blue states. Then the red candidate wins only 21.8% of the popular vote, yet still wins the election, despite 78.2% of the electorate voting against him.

List of states in our hypothetical model: Red – Wyoming, District of Columbia, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana, Maine, Hawaii, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Iowa, Connecticut, South Carolina, Minnesota, Alabama, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Louisiana, Wisconsin  Maryland, Tennessee, Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, and North CarolinaBlue – Virginia, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio, Illinois, Florida, Texas, New York, and California.

Note: After I wrote this post, I googled the 21.8% and found a few cases where people used intense computer computation with exponential-time algorithms to figure this out.

I was shocked when I discovered these methods, as my own method was extraordinarily simple, taking all of two minutes in Excel, with otherwise no number-crunching: just list out the states in ascending order of population per electoral vote, and then go down the list until you get to 270 or more. The list I got started with Wyoming, and went all the way down to Georgia. However, this added up to 271, so I searched for any way to shave off 1 electoral vote. As it turns out, there was a way: I replaced Georgia (16 electoral votes) by North Carolina (15 electoral votes), which has a smaller population.

Bonus Round #1:

Now pretend there are more than 2 parties. Then it is possible to win 270 with an even smaller percentage of the popular vote. Let n be the number of parties. Then you can win with 43.6/n % of the popular vote. The 2-party example of 21.8% is just a special case of this. For example, with 3 parties the red candidate just needs to win a 33.34% vs 33.33% vs 33.33% plurality in each of the required states, so to win the presidency, he only needs to win 43.6/3 %, or 14.5%, of the popular vote.

Bonus Round #2:

Let’s go back to 2 parties. Someone on Facebook asked:

What if the electoral college reps were voted in based on district? The representatives are based on members of congress, right? So what if every state did what Maine and Nebraska does and allow their representatives to split? Two elected based on statewide votes, the rest by congressional district. Keeps the small states relevant to the campaign while making the electoral process more representative.

As it turns out, the answer doesn’t change if we let electors vote by district. Just let the red candidate win every single district in every single red state listed above by one vote. Then it’s still an electoral win with 21.8% of the popular vote.

The number does change, however, if we remove the two state votes from each state and have the vote counted purely by district. Then a candidate must win 23.2% of the popular vote (win the 219 smallest districts by a marginal amount, outright lose the other 217 districts).

Sources:

Does Your Individual Vote Really Matter?

Everyone on Facebook seems to be talking about how they voted today, and why you should as well. To be a good citizen, they say, you must vote. “Go vote!” says every other status on my Facebook feed.

Yet there are plenty of reasons not to vote, and in fact, not voting has been historically a very powerful form of protest against a government. This article debunks many of the voting myths that attempt to place voting on the moral high-ground. I found the most significant part of the article to be number 5, which responds to the claim that your vote is your voice in the government:

In a democratic form of government it would be. In a democratic form of government, such as a direct or participatory democracy, people can vote on things like budgets, wars, and other important issues, and have a voice in government. In our representative government, people can only vote for representatives who may or may not listen to them or act in their interests, and who cannot be held accountable during their terms of office, which is the only time they hold power and are needed to represent the interests of their constituents. Waiting until somebody has killed a million people in a war based on lies, destroyed the economy, and taken away your civil rights, and then trying to elect somebody else, is much too late because by then much of the damage cannot be undone and your grandchildren will still be paying for it.

Indeed, the United States is not a true democracy (though the term “democracy” gets thrown around enough that it seems to be synonymous with anything moral).

There are two more main reasons why, for the majority of voters, your vote will be futile. Firstly, the electoral college system places all importance on the swing states such as Ohio. Unless you live in one of these states, your individual vote will have nearly zero chance of affecting the outcome of the election, as the vote of your state is already determined. Even if you do live in one of these states, one vote will not statistically make a difference. There has not ever been a case where a president has been decided by one vote, and basic probability tells you it will remain that way.

But what if everyone thinks like that, you might say. If everyone does this, then no one will vote, and the election will fail. The bad guy will be elected with just a handful of votes.

This is hardly a valid concern. We all agree that being a medical doctor is a good and respectable profession. However, if everyone thinks like that, then everyone will be doctors, and nobody will be there to grow crops, educate children, provide entertainment, forecast weather, write books, or produce art. This argument fails because even though one might respect doctors, one must not necessarily become one.

Secondly, if you really want to change the world, you’re not going to do it by casting a single ballot once and then posting once on Facebook that you voted and then never mention politics again. Suppose I had a button in front of me such that every time I pressed the button, it would add one vote randomly for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in a random polling booth in the United States. Even if I pressed the button a thousand times it would have no statistical effect on the outcome.

If you want to change something, start a movement. Your government won’t listen to an insignificant statistic in a polling booth, but it sure as hell will listen to a provocative demonstration. The beauty of the United States is that you have the right to challenge the government, a right that is too often taken for granted, for in many countries, speaking out against the slightest flaw in your country could be a death sentence. So exercise this right! We the people control the government, yet we have allowed the government to control us.

So if you think that by voting, you have fulfilled your civic duty for the next four years, think again. If you really care about your country that much, you would do a lot more than broadcasting your vote on Facebook to a bunch of people you already know anyways.

All that said, in an age of technology and reason, I would be very unhappy if Romney were elected. It is important that the United States lead the world in advancing forward, not regressing back into an anti-intellectual dark age. If I were to choose between Romney and Obama, I would without the slightest hesitation pick President Obama. However, given that Ithaca, NY is guaranteed to vote Democrat (and the state of New York as a whole), and given that both major party candidates have been quiet about the environment in the weeks leading up to the election, my vote today went to Green Party candidate Jill Stein.