Neil's News

Electoral College

7 November 2008

Now that the election is safely over, there's a quirk of the US electoral system that's worth noting. Most will recall the infamous 2000 vote where Gore got one half of one percent more votes than Bush, yet Bush won the election. This is an occasional side-effect of the Electoral College[?], a middle layer between the population and the candidates.

The obvious question is what is the maximum vote one could get under the US electoral system, and still lose the election? My best answer is 78% to lose, and 22% to win. (This ignores edge case of tied electoral votes which ends up being decided by Congress.)

Here's the scenario spreadsheet for parties 'A' and 'B', and the raw CSV data.

Everyone I've talked with has been surprised by this -- but in different ways. Many are surprised that it is so unfair, while others (Google engineers in particular) are equally surprised that it is not more unfair. The latter (myself included) start from the position that a 75% loss is a given, and assume that the different weightings of votes would slew the result well into the 80s. It is counter-intuitive that giving Wyoming residents nearly four times the voting power as Florida residents would have minimal impact on the outcome.

Thus the problem with the Electoral College is not so much with giving different people different voting weights (an issue repeatedly raised by the press). That issue only accounts for a worst-case drift of 3%. Instead the problem is the Electoral College's existence, which causes a second level vote to occur. This issue accounts for a worst-case drift of 25%. It would be an interesting 5th of November if the loser got over 70% of the vote. Guy Fawkes Night[?] might cross the Pond...

Update: My co-worker David Bloom thought of an even more entertaining scenario that's based on variable voter turnout. In the most extreme case, imagine only a handful of voters show up to the polls in states that comprise 270 Electoral College votes, and most of them vote for party A. In the remaining states there is massive turnout and millions of them vote for party B. Thus Party B gets nearly 100% of the popular vote -- and loses the election. Wow.

[Gray Code height measure] Photo of the week:
This height measuring device uses a very wide linear Gray code[?] to establish its position. The doctor thought the pretty pattern on the post was merely ornamental until I explained how it worked.

Mental note: Disable Skype before giving a presentation; none of us really needed to see "Elvira Fluffy" pop up an unsolicited message with a link to "her pictures".

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