ViewPoint: The absurd math of the electoral college – Tauhid Zaman

MIT Sloan Assistant Professor Tauhid Zaman

MIT Sloan Assistant Professor Tauhid Zaman

From the Boston Business Journal

For those who think it’s mathematically odd that Donald Trump was sworn in this past week as the next president of the United States — even though he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes — I have some news: It could have been even more strange.

Instead of netting only 46.1 percent of the vote compared with Clinton’s 48.2 percent of the popular vote, Trump could have, by my calculations, pulled in a mere 22 percent of the popular vote and still won the election.

How is that possible? Thank our quirky electoral college system, as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, that assigns electoral votes to final election outcomes in individual states, not by a nationwide vote tally.

It’s all about mathematics. Here’s how it works.

Right now, as called for by the U.S. Constitution, each state’s electoral vote is determined by the number of its House seats, based on population, and two Senate seats, which are automatically assigned to each state. But in most states across the country, electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. It’s a classic “to-the-victor-goes-the-spoils” system — and it’s this flaw in the system that can lead to absurdly distorted, and ultimately undemocratic, mathematical outcomes.

To show how absurd the current system could theoretically get, imagine a very close election in which each candidate has nearly the same number of electoral votes. The winner would then have won about half of the states. Now assume, once again theoretically, that the winner received half the popular vote in each state won, but received zero votes in the states lost. In this case the winner only has 25 percent of the vote.

A refined analysis considering the exact distribution of electoral and popular votes shows that the lowest share of the popular vote the winner could receive is 22 percent. Of course, the actual voting outcome that produces this result is next to impossible, requiring events such as getting zero votes in California. But think about it: With more realistic statistical adjustments, calculations could produce a winner with only 32 percent of the popular vote, or 42 percent. You get the idea.

Two academic scholars whom I admire — Arnold Barnett, a professor and colleague of mine at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Edward Kaplan, a professor at Yale University’s schools of management, engineering and public health — have proposed reforming the current electoral system. In a recently published article, they suggest awarding each state’s electoral votes in direct proportion to the candidates’ share of the states’ popular vote. But by my calculations, even with this reform, a candidate could still win the presidency with only 44 percent of the overall popular vote — or even less than what Donald Trump received this past November.

The bottom line: A proportional electoral system is still flawed. But at least it’s better than what we have today — and arguably is better than a straight popular-vote system, which has its own flaws, such as slanting results in favor of densely populated urban areas.

Both Republicans and Democrats need to know that the current electoral system can boomerang in either direction. The system that benefited Donald Trump in 2016 could just as easily have benefited Hillary Clinton.

Remember: Mathematics has no political party bias.

Read the full post at the Boston Business Journal

Tauhid Zaman is the KDD Career Development Professor in Communications and Technology at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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