Math Against Tyranny — Understanding the Electoral College

In Math Against Tyranny Will Hiveley profiles mathematician Alan Natapoff, who says that when it comes to the Electoral College, “Everybody gets this wrong. Everybody. Because we were taught incorrectly.”

The more Natapoff looked into the nitty-gritty of real elections, the more parallels he found with another American institution that stirs up wild passions in the populace. The same logic that governs our electoral system, he saw, also applies to many sports-which Americans do, intuitively, understand. In baseballs World Series, for example, the team that scores the most runs overall is like a candidate who gets the most votes. But to become champion, that team must win the most games. In 1960, during a World Series as nail-bitingly close as that years presidential battle between Kennedy and Nixon, the New York Yankees, with the awesome slugging combination of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Bill “Moose” Skowron, scored more than twice as many total runs as the Pittsburgh Pirates, 55 to 27. Yet the Yankees lost the series, four games to three. Even Natapoff, who grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, conceded that Pittsburgh deserved to win. “Nobody walked away saying it was unfair,” he says.

Runs must be grouped in a way that wins games, just as popular votes must be grouped in a way that wins states. The Yankees won three blowouts (16-3, 10-0, 12-0), but they couldn’t come up with the runs they needed in the other four games, which were close. “And that’s exactly how Cleveland lost the series of 1888,” Natapoff continues. “Grover Cleveland. He lost the five largest states by a close margin, though he carried Texas, which was a thinly populated state then, by a large margin. So he scored more runs, but he lost the five biggies.” And that was fair, too. In sports, we accept that a true champion should be more consistent than the 1960 Yankees. A champion should be able to win at least some of the tough, close contests by every means available – bunting, stealing, brilliant pitching, dazzling plays in the field – and not just smack home runs against second-best pitchers. A presidential candidate worthy of office, by the same logic, should have broad appeal across the whole nation, and not just play strongly on a single issue to isolated blocs of voters.

“Experts, scholars, deep thinkers could make errors on electoral reform,” Natapoff decided, “but nine-year-olds could explain to a Martian why the Yankees lost in 1960, and why it was right. And both have the same underlying abstract principle.”

That was back in 1996. Read Hively’s article to find out the mathematical secret to voting power. Then you can see what experts, scholars, and deep thinkers have made of Natapoff’s and others’ arguments since then in Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College, Why the Electoral College is Bad for America, and Choosing a President: The Electoral College and Beyond.

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