Scary math tricks with U.S. Presidential Elections

Read This Before You Vote!

by Dan Efran

Editor’s Note: This was written before the bizarre cliffhanger election that led to George W. Bush’s presidency. But even in elections where things go more smoothly, the issues discussed here are still relevant.  This article used to conclude with a nice list of references, but when we updated it in 2011, every single one of the articles referenced had disappeared!

The United States presidential election system is more complex than most people realize, and it has some serious mathematical pitfalls. Be aware of them so that your vote will mean what you think it does.

Voting for a third-party candidate may have consequences you don’t expect. However, a clever new voting technique may be a better way to achieve your goals! Read on!

Refresher Course

Remember, what you don’t know can hurt you, so let’s take a brief look at how the U.S. chooses its presidents. I’ll point out a few of the pitfalls in the system as we go along.

First, the people of the various political parties nominate candidates from a variety of choices. They hold “primaries” to make these choices. (This sometimes eliminates candidates who might otherwise win a general election.)

These candidates and parties must solicit and spend millions of dollars if they hope to win the election. (The federal government matches some of this money, but only for parties with 5% or more of the popular vote in the previous election. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is.)

Then the citizens of each state vote on those nominated candidates. (This is the “general election” in November of every fourth year.) These votes do not decide the election. Rather, they are used by each state to determine which electors they will send to the Electoral College. These electors will actually decide the election, when they vote in early December. (Each state gets as many electors as it has Representatives in the U.S. House, plus two.)

Most states (all but Maine and Nebraska) send only electors representing the candidate who got the majority of the popular vote in that state. That means that up to 49% of the people in each state are not represented at all in the Electoral College.

The electors vote separately on the candidates for President and those for Vice President. A majority of electors is required in each vote.

If no candidate gets a majority in the Electoral College vote, the House of Representatives decides who gets to be President. (Each state’s delegation has one vote in this.)

Note that an elector may not be a Representative, Senator, etc. The House, as we’re constantly being reminded, is split along partisan lines and controlled by one party or the other. If the House were forced to choose the President, the party that controls the House would likely control the election.

So What?

Before you cast your vote, be sure it means what you want it to mean. For example:

Are you planning to vote for a third-party candidate? Be sure you understand what the consequences will be.

  • Your candidate will not win this election. Sorry. If you want a President who represents your views, you may be better off voting for your favorite of the candidates who can win. Remember, your candidate is unlikely to get any electors–he’ll get them only if he gets a majority of the vote in at least one state.
  • If a third-party candidate does get any electors, it’s that much harder for the Electoral College vote to result in a majority. In a close race, it could make a big difference. For example, a vote that would have been 51% to 49% with two candidates represented by electors might become 49% to 49% to 2% when a third-party candidate enters the picture. If nobody has a majority, then the House of Representatives decides.
  • Voting third-party might give your candidate’s party more recognition next time around. But protesting unfair election procedures (like the bipartisan control of the debates) may be a more direct way to empower third parties in general.
  • If your state’s general-election results will be close, your vote for a third-party candidate is helping your least-favorite candidate win. Of the opponents of your least-favorite choice, it’s best to support the one with the best chance of winning.

Swing states and vote swapping

If you still want to vote third-party, check out this clever new strategy for minimizing the damage you do to your second choice:

Suppose you’re in a state that could easily go either way, so your vote for Nader would help Bush. Say your brother lives in a solidly conservative state, where his vote won’t change the state’s results one way or the other, but he’s planning to vote for Gore anyway.

Now suppose you agree to trade votes with your brother. You “export” your Nader vote to where it will help his party’s credibility but won’t hurt Gore (because he can’t win that state anyway). In return your brother “imports” his Gore vote to your hotly contested state, where it could really make a difference. You both increase your voting power. It’s a private agreement between you, and no money is exchanged, so it’s completely legal.

I think that’s incredibly clever. If you plan to vote third-party, you should consider this strategy. Tell your friends, too.

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One thought on “Scary math tricks with U.S. Presidential Elections

  1. Pingback: How to Save the Earth from Donald Trump and the Republican Congressional Majority | The Earthling's Handbook

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