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Statistics, Politics and Policy

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Estimating Partisan Bias of the Electoral College Under Proposed Changes in Elector Apportionment

A. C. Thomas
  • Corresponding author
  • Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of ­Statistics, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
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  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Andrew Gelman / Gary King / Jonathan N. Katz
  • Kay Sugahara Professor of Social Sciences and Statistics and Chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA
  • Other articles by this author:
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Published Online: 2013-01-11 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/spp-2012-0001


In the election for President of the United States, the Electoral College is the body whose members vote to elect the President directly. Each state sends a number of delegates equal to its total number of representatives and senators in Congress; all but two states (Nebraska and Maine) assign electors pledged to the candidate that wins the state’s plurality vote. We investigate the effect on presidential elections if states were to assign their electoral votes according to results in each congressional district, and conclude that the direct popular vote and the current electoral college are both substantially fairer compared to those alternatives where states would have divided their electoral votes by congressional district.


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About the article

Corresponding author: A. C. Thomas, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Statistics, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Published Online: 2013-01-11

Although there are total of 535 members of Congress, the District of Columbia gets three electoral votes under the 23rd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution even though it has no members of Congress.

Petitioner Thomas W. Hiltachk, the signed author of the proposal and representative of Californians for Equal Representation, is a partner of law firm Bell, McAndrews and Hiltachk, LLP, which has represented the California Republican Party.

See http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/state/change-proposed-for-states-electoral-vote-process-314523/ and http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/15/pennsylvania-electoral-college-plan-could-backfire-on-g-o-p/ for more background.

Another way to define the influence of states in the Electoral College is by comparing the empirical voting power, or the probability that an individual vote is decisive, in different states. Voting power varies greatly from state to state – for example, Utah is so far from the national median that voters there have almost zero chance of determining the national electoral vote winner – but, overall, voters in small states have slightly higher voting power; see (Gelman, King and Boscardin 1998).

Michigan enacted this system for the 1892 election, but removed it for the subsequent election in 1896.

Proportional representation, a system in which S equals V by design, is a special case of partisan symmetry, but one that has no role in American elections.

The year 1968 is the only recent presidential contest where a major third-party candidate appears after the fact to have made a major impact on the properties of the election. We ought to consider the impact of shifting votes to and from George Wallace, who won five southern states and 46 electoral votes, but we do not have the model framework to do so; as a result, votes are only shifted between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. Results for this year are therefore more speculative than in all others. We also note that for Florida’s electoral votes in 2000, third-party candidates Nader and Buchanan each had vote counts that were far more than the ultimate vote difference between candidates Bush and Gore, but far less than the effective uncertainty of this difference, so that their presence can be safely ignored for our purposes.

Citation Information: Statistics, Politics and Policy, ISSN (Online) 2151-7509, ISSN (Print) 2194-6299, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/spp-2012-0001.

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