Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How the electoral college gerrymanders the presidential vote

with 2 comments

Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post:

Here’s a fun little thought experiment demonstrating the fundamental arbitrariness of the electoral college: Had two state borders been drawn just a little bit differently, shifting a total of four counties from one state to another, Hillary Clinton would have won the election.

Take a look at the imaginary map above, which comes from an nifty online tool called Redraw the States. It was created by Kevin Hayes Wilson, a mathematician and data scientist working in computer science education.

This map moves Lake County, Ill. to Wisconsin, turning that state blue. It moves Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties from the Florida panhandle to neighboring Alabama. That’s enough to turn Florida blue. With victories in Wisconsin and Florida, Clinton squeaks to victory in the electoral college, 270 to 268.

Exact same votes, slightly different borders, radically different outcome: the capriciousness of the electoral college laid bare.

After the election, a former classmate posed Wilson a question: How stable are the electoral college results under small changes of geography? That is, how much of Donald Trump’s electoral college victory is attributable to the odd quirks of geography or history that are baked into our country’s state and county borders?

The answer, Wilson found, is “quite a lot.”

To arrive at this answer, Wilson built his interactive border-drawing thought experiment. It allows you to select any number of counties and move them to a different state to see how the electoral results would shake out under those borders.

Recall that the electoral college system is mostly winner-take-all (Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions, assigning most of their electors by congressional district). In Illinois, for instance, it does not matter whether Clinton won by 859,000 votes (her actual margin) or just 5,000 votes — in either scenario, all of the state’s electoral votes go to her.

That 859,000-vote margin means Clinton could lose hundreds of thousands of votes and still win Illinois handily. In Lake County, just north of Chicago, Clinton beat Trump by about 70,000 votes. That’s greater than Trump’s winning margin (about 20,000 votes) in the entire state of Wisconsin.

So, if you let Wisconsin annex Lake County, that state’s margin shifts from 20,000 votes in favor of Trump, to 50,000 votes in favor of Clinton. And Clinton still wins Illinois, just by a slightly smaller margin. The net electoral result is that she wins both states.

A similar process is at work in the Florida Panhandle counties. Clinton lost the state by about 120,000 votes. Across the three Panhandle counties of Santa Rosa, Escambia and Okaloosa, Trump’s total margin was 126,000 votes.

Moving those three counties to Alabama does not change the outcome there — Trump won the state handily anyway. But it does mean that Clinton wins Florida by about 6,000 votes, enough to shift all of the state’s electoral votes into her column.

Because we are indulging in electoral fan fiction here, we could go completely hog-wild and posit that state borders do not even need to be contiguous. If that were the case, you’d need to alter only two counties to give the election to Clinton: you could make Los Angeles County, Calif. (Clinton margin: 1.2 million votes) part of Texas to change the Lone Star State blue. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2017 at 4:35 pm

Posted in Election, Government, Law

2 Responses

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  1. You are pointing out “problems”. Now is the time for the solution. You had 8 years after Bush won and nothing was changed. Now you wring your hands again. Change it–everyone recognizes the shortcomings-balance with its purpose originally and change it.

    Jim Traub

    4 March 2017 at 6:14 am

  2. At the state level, some states have enacted reforms. At the national level, changing the electoral college requires a Constitutional amendment. And if we do that, we really should make the Senate less disproportionate, perhaps by combining states in the sparsely populated West, etc. See this post for a detailed answer.

    But note this post and this post.

    LeisureGuy

    4 March 2017 at 1:28 pm


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