Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Getting Into the Electoral College

On December 19, electors will meet in their state and vote for President and Vice President as the Electoral College. This institution was inspired, in part, by the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals. As most are now aware, the United States does not have a national popular vote for presidential elections. Instead, we’ve had multiple popular votes in the states, with Electoral College electors distributed by the size of the population in the state (which is reflected in its numbers of Congressional representatives. DC is treated as a state). The winning candidate must win a combination of states that gives them a majority of these Electoral College votes. In four elections, including 2016, the candidate winning more electors gained fewer total votes in the electorate than the candidate finishing second in the Electoral College. Is this because electors in the Electoral College are disproportionately allocated? This is part of it. Larger states tend to have a larger share of the voting eligible population (VEP) than their share of electors (see the states above the line in the figure below. Data are from Michael McDonald’s United States Elections Project). No matter how small the state, the fewest electors assigned is still three. This creates slight over-representation in small states.

The other more impactful distortion of the Electoral College is that in most states it is “winner take all.” The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, who use some smaller districts to divide up their electors. Hillary Clinton needed 26% more votes than Trump to win each of her electors. She had 269,414 votes per elector compared to Trump’s 199,976 votes per elector. Clinton also had more “wasted” votes than Trump. Because the winner in most states wins all the electors, there are many places where the votes for candidates did not result in any Electoral College gains. In all, 31.8 million people who voted for Clinton did not impact her standing in the Electoral College. This is a majority, 51%, of all her votes. By comparison, Trump’s wasted votes totaled only 20.7 million, 34% of the votes he won.

An alternative allocation method for electors could use proportional representation to assign electors and achieve Electoral College results that are more reflective of the national vote totals. Recall the smallest states have three votes. To proportionally assign electors we would likely only be able to look at the votes won by the top two candidates (i.e., using a 10% vote threshold for third party candidates). Doing so with the 2016 vote, if we use the two-candidate share of votes for both Clinton and Trump and then apply these to the number of electors in each state we can give each candidate electors in rough proportion to their share of votes won. First we allow this to occur fractionally. For example, in Alabama, Trump led Clinton in the two-candidate vote 65% (1,306,925 million votes) to 35% (718,084 votes). Alabama has nine electors. Thus, Trump would get 5.8 electors and Clinton would net 3.2. Because fractional electors are not possible we simply round to the nearest whole person. Trump six and Clinton three. This also means in California, Trump would win 19 of 55 electors. Keep doing this for each state and you get Trump winning 268 electors and Clinton winning 270—a near tie but enough for a Clinton win. But of course these are not the rules of the game that have been established and used in the United States.

As we noted in a previous post, winning the Catholic vote has long been a good indicator that a candidate will win the election. Then perhaps the Catholic population is closely aligned with the Electoral College? Not really. As you can see below, large Catholic populations are in California, Texas, and New York. As a share of all Catholics these populations are much larger than the share of electors each of these states has. On the other hand, Catholics in Florida potentially are more influential than their population size if they vote in one direction or another in large numbers.

Image courtesy of clemsonunivlibrary.

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