Question about American Democracy

Before I post my actual question I will tell you how I believe American Democracy works so if this is wrong you can ignore my question and correct me :slight_smile:

O.K. so my assumption is that in an American election it is possible to be elected without winning what is referred to as the “popular vote”, in other words the person who most people vote for will not necessarily win the election. This is due to a certain number of “seats” being given to each state which isn’t always in proportion to the population. For example:

State A has 10 million people and 10 seats
State B has 12 million people and 9 seats

So votes cast in State A have more of a bearing on the outcome of the election than those cast in State B as the outcome is decided by the number of seats rather than direct number of votes.

If memory serves Dubya lost the popular vote when first elected but won it second time around?

Anyway, that is how I believe the process to work so onto the question:

In an election with only two candidates (A & B) what is the lowest percentage of votes that candidate A can recieve and still be elected as president? In other words all the people who live in states with high seats/population ratios vote for candidate A and those people living in states with low seats/population ratios vote for candidate B.

I would take a WAG that it would be around 45% but leave the actual maths to those of you who understand American democracy better than I.

The number of electors is in proportion to the state’s population. State B will not have less electors than State A. It will have more.

Suppose State A and State B support different presidential candidates. If everyone in both states shows up to vote, State B’s candidate will win the electoral vote and the popular vote. But if not everyone participates – say there’s a 50% turnout in Sate A and a 40% turnout in State B – State B’s candidate can win the electoral vote (and the presidency) but lose the popular vote.

If only one person votes in the entire state, all the state’s electoral votes would be given to the candidate that person voted for. Take the states that voted for Bush in the last election: suppose only one person had shown up to vote in the each state, and each of those persons voted for Bush. Bush would have still won the presidency, even though the popular vote would have been monumentally lopsided against him.

With the present apportionment, it would take the 11 largest states to win. So follwing the example above of only one person showing up to vote, a candidate could win with only 11 votes, essentially 0%.

I did calculate it just using state populations, which assumes equal, relatively high turnout rates and equal voter registration rates everywhere, and I found that if one were to win 50% + 1 of the votes in all but the ten largest states and no votes in those ten states, that candidate would win with about 24.3% of the vote (if I’m remembering correctly). To go the other way and only win the large states would require something around 28%, I think.

This is true only for the election of President and Vice President, which are the only two elections that occur on a nationwide scale. Every other elected position occurs within a state or district of various types, and are almost always straight-plurality elections. (Whoever gets the most votes wins.) There are a few exceptions; some places have things like proportional and non-partisan elections for various local offices, councils, school boards and the like.

That specific scenario won’t happen. The Electoral College (the body that elects the President and Vice President) is composed of Electors from each state in equal number to that state’s representatives to the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives is divided proportionally by population of each state, with a minimum of one Representative guaranteed to every state. The Senate, on the other hand, has exactly two Senators per state, no exceptions. The Electoral College is like mashing those two groups together into one large group. (But the Electors are not Senators and Representatives, they’re totally different people.) The result of this is that the less populous states are slightly over-represented in the Electoral College. This was designed that way on purpose as a compromise.

Yeah. Wyoming has three electors (one for its lone Representative, and two for each of its Senators.) And it has a population of 494,000. Thus each Elector represents roughly 165,000 people. New York, on the other hand, has 19 million people and 31 Electoral votes, resulting in one Elector per 613,000 people! (It’s not that simple of course, since the number of electors remains the same regardless of voter turnout. If turnout is high in New York and low in Wyoming, then the disparity in terms of voters the each Electors represents is even higher.)


The minimum popular vote would be zero. The Electoral College can elect whomever they please. The method of choosing Electors was never specified in the Constitution, it was simply left up to the legislatures of each state. Originally the state legislatures would simply appoint Electors as they saw fit. The idea of holding popular elections for Electors came later and was implimented on a state-by-state basis. Rogue Electors (who vote for someone other than who they were expected to vite for) appear occasionally. But a rogue has never actually affected the outcome of an election.

Most states appoint all their Electors from the party that wins a plurality in that state (a practice coming under increasing criticism.) So if one party won exactly 51% in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, New Jersey, and North Carolina, they would get 271 electoral votes, a majority in the Electoral College. Those states total about 160 million people, or just over half the population of the US. Assuming equal voter turnout nationwide, if 51% of the people in those eleven states voted for Some Guy, he’d win an electoral majority with around a quarter of the popular vote. That’s not very likely, though.

Three Presidents have been elected after losing the popular vote:

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden by about 250,000 votes, but won in the Electoral College.

In 1888, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland by about 100,000 votes, but won in the Electoral College. (Grover got his revenge in 1892 and became the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms.)

In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore by about 540,000 votes, but won in the Electoral College by just squeaking by with a majority. In 2004, Bush won the popular vote and a larger majority in the Electoral College.

So the only times it has happened the actual difference in numbers have not been too significant.

It’s not actually posible to put a minimum number of the amount of popular votes you can get and still win, because while there are usually only two serious canidates, third party picks sometimes throw things off. Ross Perot arguably lost Bush senior the election in ‘92, and Teddy Roosevelt threw off the Republican bid when he formed his own party (the Bull Moose Party) a century ago. Similarly, Lincoln’s win in 1860 was helped considerably by the Democrats’ massive split and 3 serious contenders.

Everyone above is referring to the Electoral College in the election of the president.

In all other elections, generally speaking, the person with the most votes wins. This may include elections where the winner does not receive a majority vote (50% plus one) of all votes cast.

Just by way of nitpicking, if State A had recently suffered a mass exodus of voters and State B experienced a mass influx (or both), it’s possible for over- or under-representation in the EC, to be corrected after the next census.

I probably should have stated full voter-turnout in my OP but it slipped my mind. I realise that in elections there would be more than 2 candidates but for the sake of this hypothetical example I limited it to 2 to make things easier.

The reason I ask this question is that I was curious to see just how selectively a candidate could campaign and still win. In current U.S. elections the candidates tend to campaign more heavily in so called “swing-states” where the outcome is uncertain and neglect those states where they are known to have a good majority. So, if a theoretical new candidate arrived on the scene I wanted to know what is the minumum of states he would need to campaign in, (if he focused only on those states where the votes could be said to count more than others), and the minimum percentage of voters s/he would have to “turn” in order to come out victorious.

I certainly didn’t expect the number to be as low as ~25%.

Thanks for all your replies so far, it has certainly been interesting to read them but I have one further question. I understand that the House of Representatives and the Senate have duties that occupy their time fully but what do the Electoral College do for the next four years after chosing the president? Presumably if they were consulted on the formation of any new laws or national policy they would always vote on the side of the President which would seem somewhat pointless. So waht do they do, are they relieved of their duties after the election process is complete?

They don’t do anything at all. Their sole job is to meet once, attempt to elect the President and Vice President, and go home.

The Electoral College does nothing except elect the president.


Simulpost, and friedo had a better answer. :o


Who decides which people get to be in the electoral college?

Does each party have a group of people prepared and ready in case they win?

Yeah, before the election, each party submits a slate of electors.

Yep. Usually people get chosen for being loyal party workers or volunteers in their home state. Each party will submit their list of Electors to the state government, which will appoint them in the manner directed by the legislature. (Usually all go to whoever gets the plurality of the popular vote, although Maine and Nebraska have more complex systems that allow electoral votes to be split between parties.)

The state party committee. They’re elected by the party from party members within each state.

I don’t believe this question has a single factual answer – because there are just too many permutations to the 50 States and numbers percentages voting in each.

Having said that, I am pretty sure that the possible answers are probably really something south of 45% of the popular vote. Consider one scenario : Candidate A wins the popular vote 50.1 to 49.9 in

California (55 Electoral votes), Florida 27, Georgia 15, Illinois 21, Indiana 11,
Massachusetts 12, Michigan17, Minnesota 10, Ohio 20, Pennsylvania 21,
Texas 34, Virginia 13, Washington 11, Wyoming 3

Candidate A wins the election with an Electoral vote of 270.
Even if he loses the remain 36 states 80% to 20%

The traditional term is “faithless elector.”

The last faithless elector, I believe, was an elector from the District of Columbia in 2000, who refused to cast her vote for any candidate in protest of the district’s lack of full representation in Congress.

I did a rough calculation in another thread about a year ago:

(1) The voter turnout is identical to what it was in the 2000 election
(2) All the voters vote for one of only two candidates
(3) Candidate A wins by only one vote in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, New Jersey, and North Carolina
(3) Candidate A gets zero votes in the remaining states

Then Candidate A can with the presidency in the Electoral College with about 27.2 percent of the votes.

Also, to add to what others have said about the Electoral College – it is not an “office,” really and you aren’t elected to it for any length of time. Once the Electoral College has submitted its vote results, that’s it, it’s over. The electors in the next election will be chosen afresh.

Just as an extra point of information, i would like point out that many other countries have a situation where it is possible to win the leadership without getting a majority of the popular vote. For example, in countries using the Westminster system of parliament (the UK, Canada, Australia come to mind) the Prime Minister is the head of the party with most seats in the lower house. But it is mathematically possible to gain the most seats in the lower house without getting the majority of the popular vote.

I guess the US equivalent would be the Senate and the House of Representatives. In each case, it is possible for one party to hold a majority in the Senate or the House of Reps, but the other party to get more votes (or, more correctly, because of staggered elections, have more supporters).

The short form is that its possible in most democraces to have results that seems slightly askew from some idealized version, but practical concerns mean that these are usually harmless and fairly rare.