It’s officially two weeks until Election Day, and we’re already gearing up here for an evening of popcorn in front of the TV. With Dad not being a big sports fan, election night is something like the Super Bowl around here, and this is the first election where the kids realize there’s something like “teams” we root for throughout the night. That said, if we learned anything in the last two elections, it’s that score keeping is hard. Seriously, if football had scoring rules like the Electoral College I think we’d be looking at a lot more hockey fans out there. Let’s take a closer look! There are 50 states plus the District of Columbia who are granted electoral votes for purposes of the presidential election. Each state is given a number of votes equal to the number of representatives it has in Congress. Each state has two Senators, plus some number of members in the House of Representative. The number of House of Representatives members from each state is based generally on population. The District of Columbia is granted three votes even though it has no representation in Congress. For the 2008 election, all of this totals up to 538 Electoral College votes. Most of the states award their Electoral College votes in all-or-nothing contests. If a candidate wins, the candidate gets all of the votes for that state. The exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska, who divide their votes in all-or-nothing contests at the congressional district level, and with the two votes corresponding to the Senate seats awarded based on the state-wide popular vote. In theory, this could cause Maine or Nevada to split their votes between the candidates, but because these states have a small number of congressional districts (and a correspondingly small number of Electoral College votes), the math generally works out where the state-wide votes and the votes within individual congressional districts always agree. In fact, a college vote split has never occurred, but polls are close in Nevada this year, so keep a watch there for this potential bit of election trivia to expire.

*State*
*Votes*
California
55
Texas
34
New York
31
Florida
27
Illinois
21
Pennsylvania
21
Ohio
20
Michigan
17
Georgia
15
New Jersey
15
North Carolina
15
Virginia
13
Massachusetts
12
Indiana
11
Missouri
11
Tennessee
11
Washington
11
Arizona
10
Maryland
10
Minnesota
10
Wisconsin
10
Alabama
9
Colorado
9
Louisiana
9
Kentucky
8
South Carolina
8
Connecticut
7
Iowa
7
Oklahoma
7
Oregon
7
Arkansas
6
Kansas
6
Mississippi
6
Nebraska
5
Nevada
5
New Mexico
5
Utah
5
West Virginia
5
Hawaii
4
Idaho
4
Maine
4
New Hampshire
4
Rhode Island
4
Alaska
3
Delaware
3
D.C.
3
Montana
3
North Dakota
3
South Dakota
3
Vermont
3
Wyoming
3
Half of the 538 vote total is 269, so a candidate must win 270 votes to get a majority and win the game. It doesn’t matter how they get there, but obvious the bigger the haul in one of those all-or-nothing states, the closer to victory. Nearby is a list of the states sorted in descending order by their electoral votes. If you look at this chart, the top 11 states account for 271 votes, or just enough to win the election. In other words, the bottom 39 states and the District of Columbia count as much as those top 11 states. In fact, you have to add up 15 of the lowest ranking contributors just to get close to the 55 Electoral College votes that California racks up.
So why do we persist with this system of all-or-nothing contests? Doesn’t that just perpetuate that whole 2000 election/Florida fiasco? Actually, the Electoral College vote helps encourage candidates to spend time in individual estates, even if it’s only the ones where the contests are close in the polls. If the race was purely decided by the national populate votes, candidates would probably spend virtually all of their time in those top few states since that’s where they’re likely to shift the largest absolute number of votes. The Electoral College encourages candidates to take into account the interests of a wider range of the states, which was really the intent of the system’s designers. Second guessing the Founding Fathers would be a bit like making touch-downs and field goals both count for two points… It might sound reasonable, especially if you’re the kicker, but it’s not football anymore.
When you consider that one of the original proposals was to have Congress elect the President, you’ll probably be just as glad we got the Electoral College system in the bargain.
But back to the numbers. The top 11 states are overwhelming concentrated in the Eastern half of the United States, and the only two big Western states, California and Texas, are respectively and heavily tilted toward the opposing teams. With the outcome of those two states pretty well known, there will be a lot of riding on those remaining top 9 states. For all intents and purposes, our game kicks off 8:00PM EST when polls for the majority of those states will be closed and the national networks will start calling the points.
Several of the big states are tilted one way or the other, but the big open plays in the game are really Florida and Ohio. With the team wearing the blue uniforms solidly polling double digit leads in both California and New York, the red team really needs to tip these wobblers in if they want to stay in the game. If McCain loses these two states, Obama will likely have eight of the top 11 locked up and the game is basically over before half-time. If McCain picks up both of these states, we could be looking at election-overtime. Either way, we’ll have lots of pop corn ready. Go team!
Here’s a few quick math trivia facts to keep your Electoral College-unaware friends (or your kids) amused during the night of CNN and FoxNews channel surfing…
What is the number of Electoral College votes being decided in the 2008 election? 538
How many votes are needed to win? A clear majority or 270 votes will be necessary to win the 2008 Presidential Election.
Can there be a tie? Absolutely. If both parties end the night with exactly half the total, or 269 votes, the sitting House of Representatives decides the election. If the House vote is a tie, the Senate (which has 101 votes including the Vice President, so it can never have a tie), decides.
How many different ways could the Electoral College votes be cast? In theory, with 51 different contests (ignoring the Nevada/Maine complexity), there are 2^51 or 2,251,799,813,685,248 potential ways the combination of individual elections could be decided. No matter how you slice it, that’s millions of times more than the actual number of voters. How’s that for counter-intuitive?
How many of the largest states are needed to win the Electoral College? Alternatively, what’s the fewest number of states a candidate needs to win the election? The top eleven states total 271 votes, or one more than what is necessary to win.
What’s the range of votes assigned to individual states? California has the most Electoral College votes at 55. Seven states and the District of Columbia have the fewest at 3 votes each. The average state has 10.5 Electoral College votes.

Who has the “home state advantage”? Obama and Biden share 24 votes (21 from Illionois and 3 from Delaware) compared to 13 for McCain and Palin (10 from Arizona and 3 from Alaska). The Vice Presidential picks did little to tilt either candidate’s chances in the Electoral College math. Some sources: Breakdown of Electoral Votes by State State-by-State Poll Numbers Leading Up to Election Day Check out the Green Papers for Poll Closing Times