Electoral College Power

There is an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times entitled “How Much is Your Vote Worth?” by Sarah Cowan, Stephen Doyle and Drew Heffron. Doyle and Heffron are graphic designers, which explains the lovely graphic:

Beautiful graphic, making it clear that the worth of a vote is far higher in smaller states. Unfortunately, the graphic (and the result) is completely misleading. The caption for the graphic is

This map shows each state re-sized in proportion to the relative influence of the individual voters who live there. The numbers indicate the total delegates to the Electoral College from each state, and how many eligible voters a single delegate from each state represents.

There is nothing wrong with the second part of this, but conflating “eligible voters a single delegate from each state represents” with “relative influence” ignores more than 40 years of research on the issue.

There are two issues to face. First, a voter in Wyoming can make a difference on only 3 electoral votes; a voter in California can affect 55 votes. Second, the need to get 270 votes to win the electoral college means a block of 55 votes has a different power than that of a block of 3. Dozens of papers have been written trying to work out the overall effect on the power of an individual voter. You can read more about this in Steven Brams “The Presidential Election Game”, a wonderful, if now dated, book (the 2007 does not appear to have updated much). A recent analysis is available at The Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference and Social Science blog, who also conclude that it is generally better to be in a small state, but not in the way illustrated by Cowan et al. (so, for instance, a DC voter has almost no influence, but an Ohio voter has high influence). Overall, depending on the assumptions you make, you will end up with different relative influences. But simply calculating the number of voters per electoral college delegate is grossly misleading.

Just to illustrate this, suppose there are only 2 states. State A has 10,000,000 voters for 2 Electoral College delegates; State B has 1 voter for 1 Electoral College delegate. The States (like all but 2 US States) are winner take all. Would you rather be in State A or State B? The corresponding graphic of Cowen et al. will show a voter in State B is hugely more “influential” than A, though only voters in state A have any influence at all in the election .

Nice graphic, but misleading analysis.

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