Sometimes, distortion is truth

I talked on election night about how the electoral college is skewed* towards the less populous states, and I’ve also been talking about how the red state/blue state map doesn’t accurately reflect the will of the people, both because of the winner-takes-all nature of the state-by-state distribution of the electoral votes, and also because most of the population of the country lives in concentrated areas.

Well there’s a great site that takes this a step further and actually proves it with some fancy-pants technology that can distort the map so that area corresponds to population. Here, then, is the site’s ultimate modified red-and-blue map, giving a better sense of just how “blue” or “red” or “purple” the country really is, overall…

*You may notice discrepancies between my numbers and the New York Times. I certainly defer to the “newspaper of record” on this. They are using the number of eligible voters in each state; I was using the total state population. Different numbers, and not in a trivial way, but the point, and the relative state-to-state variations, remain the same.

Don’t be fooled by all of that red territory

America does not vote by the square mile. The electoral college is fundamentally flawed, but it does at least approach an accurate representation of the will of the American populace, as much as the will of 305 million people can be evenly divided amongst 538 electoral votes.

As it stands, the vote is weighted slightly, and unfairly, in favor of states with small populations. I’ll spare you the civics lesson on how the number of votes per state is determined (if you don’t already know, shame on you, Sarah Palin), but suffice to say that each state has at least 3 electoral votes. The inequality here is best summed up in the comparison between Wyoming, our least populous state, and California, our most populous state. Wyoming’s 3 electoral votes reflect the will of its 522,380 residents at a rate of 1 vote per 174,127 people. California’s 55 electoral votes, in contrast, are divided amongst its 36,553,215 residents at a rate of 1 vote per 664,604 people. In other words, a person’s vote in Wyoming counts 3.8 times as much towards the electoral total as a person’s vote in California.

That’s unfair. But there it is. So in short, the will of the citizens of Wyoming is disproportionately represented by almost four times as much as that of the citizens of California, per person.

Nonetheless, it’s worth considering the mass of California’s 55 electoral votes when contemplating a speculative map such as the one below (from Yahoo’s Election Dashboard) — based on the likely outcome as determined by the “prediction markets” — a.k.a. the bookmakers who take bets on who will win the election. Of course, betting on the outcome of the presidential race by an American citizen is illegal. But that doesn’t keep residents of other countries from taking a sporting interest in the outcome. And, given bookmakers’ need for an accurate prediction of the outcome of any wager-worthy event like this, they’re probably more reliable than the latest polls, or even the kind of meta analysis we’re seeing out of

As an Obama supporter, I often look at maps like this and am dismayed to see so much red. Geez, I think, Obama may end up squeaking by on this but just look at it — that’s a whole lotta McCain territory out there. But again, the land isn’t voting. The people are. It helps to pay attention to those little numbers on each state. I did a quick tally and found that large, snakelike swath of the west, consisting of Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas all together comprises 55 electoral votes. The same as California.

In fact, the only big red state is Texas, and the only other reasonably big state among them is Georgia. So McCain has two 15-or-more-electoral-votes states, compared with Obama’s nine (California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida), and Virginia and Massachusetts are also larger than any other McCain states.

So there you have it. Remember that land doesn’t vote — people do. And even if, thanks to the electoral college, people’s votes count relatively more if there’s more land between them, ultimately the proportion of voters favoring one candidate or another is not accurately indicated by the amount of red or blue space you see on the map, but by how big those little numbers on the map are.

Obama’s electoral college challenge

This interactive tool from the LA Times reveals the daunting challenge Barack Obama faces in this election. It lets you paint the electoral map based on which candidate you expect to win each state. Remember, the popular vote doesn’t matter: in the end, 270 electoral votes are the only thing that can make someone president.

This tool defaults to Republican, Democrat, or toss-up, based upon the 2004 election results. Any state with a margin of victory of 8 points or less in that year is considered a toss-up. This is somewhat disingenuous, as it doesn’t take into account current trends and polls (for what they’re worth). But it’s as good a place to start as any and it seems to line up pretty well with what we’re seeing in the polls (for what they’re worth) this year.

I took the challenge, and went with my best guesses for those toss-up states: I painted Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Delaware “Democrat Blue” and Nevada, Missouri and Florida “Republican Red.” That left three states in play: Colorado, New Mexico, and Ohio. Ohio is a 20-vote powder keg in this election. If McCain wins Ohio (along with the other three states that I think are fairly safe for him), and Obama prevails in the entire, aggressive slate of ten states I assigned to him, Obama still must win Colorado and New Mexico to (just barely) win the election. Ouch.