The 2016 election was a wake up call for America. We are more divided than any time in recent memory. In order to make progress, we must first understand what happened in 2016 and why. In the end, the result of the 2016 election came down to 80,000 votes in three states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. While this seems like a small difference, it is hard to grasp how few votes this is compared to all of the eligible voters. This webpage follows the votes in
the 2016 election in order to investigate how this happened. It will identify key flaws in our election system and why it is important to fix them. This is not a story about why your vote doesn’t matter, rather understanding how the US voting system is built to favor certain votes over others.
The voting system used in US presidential elections is called first past the post (FPTP). In this system, voters choose one candidate on the ballot. The candidate with the most votes wins. Initially this system seems fair, however, upon further analysis FPTP voting has some inherent flaws. The biggest flaw is that FPTP voting allows minority rule. For example, say there are five candidates running for president and the votes are divided as follows, 42%, 15%, 22%, 9% and 12%. In the FPTP system the first candidate with 42% of the vote would win even though all together the majority of the population voted for a different candidate. Also, FPTP voting promotes a two party system. When a smaller party
recognizes that their candidate cannot win their voters will often choose a more popular party. However, these voters often strategize and vote against the candidate they don't like rather than voting for a candidate they do like. Eventually both third party candidates and voters get disinterested and the larger two parties control the elections (1).
For a more detailed look at FPTP voting watch this video by CGP Grey.
Some states have adopted an alternative voting system called ranked choice voting for their state elections. Some argue that this system should be used for presidential elections. While ranked choice voting has it’s own flaws, it solves some of the key faults that result from FPTP. In this system, voters rank the candidates in order of preference on the ballot. Once first choice votes are tallied, if no candidate has the majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and the second choice votes of their supporters are tallied. This repeats until a candidate either wins the majority or there is only one candidate left. In addition to removing the possibility of minority rule, this system also
solves a problem called the spoiler effect. The spoiler effect happens when there is a third party candidate whose votes are larger than the difference between the two main parties. This cannot happen in ranked choice voting and allows people to support third party candidates that they agree with without worrying that they will put someone they don't like into office. Of course, this system has its own flaws as well. Both FPTP and ranked choice voting do not protect against gerrymandering and they both trend toward a two party system (2).
For a more detailed look at ranked choice voting watch this video by CGP Grey.
In the United States you must be 18 years of age or older to vote. According to the United States Census Bureau, in the 2016 election 245,502,00 people were of voting age (3).
Each rectangle above represents 40,000 people and the group represents the population of potential voters in 2016.
The first hurdle in the voting process requires individuals in this population to register to vote. The deadline to register in most states is a few weeks before election day. For those who don’t closely follow the election timeline, this deadline can come and go without them realizing. The criteria to register to vote in a state is not just determined by a persons age. Each state has it’s own voter ID laws. Thus, in some cases, even the process of registering to vote has become politicized. Many states deliberately require individuals to register early and remove a same day registration option. Both red and blue states do this to strategically keep voting turn out low for the benefit of their own party. Of course, for others, the decision not to register to vote is a personal choice usually due to them missing the registration deadline.
If voting is a civil right, why is our system intentionally designed to eliminate voters at the registration stage?
The visualization to the right eliminates the individuals in the population who were not able to or chose not to register to vote. All together, 64.2% of the voting age population were registered for the 2016 election (3).
However, not all of those who managed to register ended up voting.
Press play to view the remaining non-voters get eliminated. At this stage, greater than 2 of every 5 adults have fallen out of our electoral process.
The United States uses a system to determine the winner of presidential elections called the Electoral College. In order to see the flaws and benefits of this system, it is important to understand how it works. There are 538 individual electors that make up the Electoral College. Each state has one elector for each of their members in the House of Representatives plus two electors representing their
senators (4). An individual person’s vote in a presidential election is actually a vote for a state elector. The electors then ultimately vote for president through the Electoral College. Most states (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska) have a winner take all system where all of the states electoral votes are cast as a group for the candidate who won the plurality of that states popular vote (4). Thus, you can win
the presidency with a 270 majority in the Electoral College, and still have the minority of popular votes.
Since the president is elected through the Electoral College, it is more valuable to view the presidential election as 51* individual state elections.
The visualization to the left divides the voters by state. Move the mouse over each star to view what state it represents.
*Note: in an election the District of Columbia is considered it’s own state and is awarded it’s own electoral votes
Since each state has a different number of electoral votes, an individual’s vote can be thought of as carrying more weight in a state with fewer electors than in a state with more. The nature of the Electoral College cast more weight on a voter from Alaska, for example, than a voter from New York.
In the visualization to the right, the size of the rectangles have been adjusted using the following equation… (number of state votes / number of Electoral College votes) x (scale factor). Remember, each rectangle still represents 40,000 people. Thus, this visual demonstrates how an individuals votes aren’t equally represented between states in the presidential contest.
Ultimately, the part which has the most popular votes wins the state’s electoral votes. This is a distinct difference than the party winning a majority. Since the presidential election uses a ‘first past the post’ system, the winning party only needs to win a plurality not a majority to win all of the electoral votes of each state.
The visualization above shows the state votes divided by party. Click on the button above to view the winning parties of each state.
The purpose of this story was to inform readers about various aspects of the United States voting system and to visually experience how each persons voice was counted in the 2016 election. This information should empower readers to become more involved and more knowledgable about future elections and the systems on which they operate. America is an experiment of ideas which are meant to be challenged. We must
recognize that our systems may not be perfect but have evolved over time. When citizens take action, change is made. This has been proven when persistent citizens changed history by protesting to give woman and African Americans the right to vote. Today it is just as important to take action so that everyone’s voice is heard equally. The first step to this action, is to become well informed.