Related to this question.

It seems that the "winner takes all" electoral college vote in most US states heavily undervalues votes from voters in "safe states". During the recent elections several vote trading sites were arranging 2-1 vote swaps between major parties' supporters in safe states and 3rd party supporters in swing states.

It's also very clear that this policy undermines 3rd party candidates.

The question is:

Why do most states have "winner takes all" policy in electoral college representation?

  • The question "What would it takes to change it" does already exist and the sub-question "Isn't it contrary to the spirit of equalizing democracy?" is primarily opinion-based, so I took the freedom to remove them.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 5:33

2 Answers 2


It's also very clear that this policy undermines 3rd party candidates.

From the perspective of third-party candidates, all states have winner-take-all policies. It's just that two states, Nebraska and Maine, are winner-take-all by congressional district plus two statewide electors.

But I don't know that it matters too much for president. Yes, it means that parties with many voters across many electoral districts have little opportunity to get any electoral votes. But that doesn't really matter. Winning a few electoral votes doesn't mean anything. The Nebraska/Maine system just makes the geographic districts a bit smaller.

The real change that could help third-party candidates at the presidential level would be ranked voting. One of the chief arguments of the main parties against third-parties is that they can cause the less preferred of the two candidates to be elected. With ranked voting, minor candidate votes role over to the major candidates (except in systems like range and approval voting). Regardless, ranked voting of any flavor allows people to vote for third-party candidates with less worry about tactical voting giving a better result.

Now, geographic congressional districts in the House make things much harder for third parties there.

Anyway, to get back to the main thrust of the question.

What's the reason not all US states have proportional electoral college vote?

The majority of the voters of Maine voted for Hillary Clinton. But only three of the electoral votes went for Clinton and one went for Trump. The net margin is only two. That's less than the three electors provided for Trump by Wyoming. Maine's voters would have had more electoral impact if all the electoral votes had gone to one candidate.

Winner-take-all by congressional district may better represent the actual vote, but winner-take-all by state gives the state more influence. Most states pick influence over representation.

The majority of the people in each state are advantaged by the current method, giving them little reason to change. You would pick representation over influence, but most people don't. Especially since other states have picked influence over representation. If New York went proportional, it would reduce its influence to a net eleven votes or thereabouts. Compare to Florida's twenty-nine. So New York would have essentially made Florida two and a half times as impactful as New York.

Some Republicans in Pennsylvania actually tried this for the 2016 presidential election. It wouldn't have changed the result if they had succeeded, but it would have increased Clinton's electoral vote total and reduced Trump's. Note however that it was Democrats who opposed it. Because most of the time, Democrats do better under the winner-take-all system in Pennsylvania.

So to get your system passed, you would probably have to ally with people doing it for selfish reasons. And you'd need to provide them enough cover with your altruistic proposal to let them succeed.

Maine and Nebraska were never particularly influential in the presidential election. So they had less to lose and could concentrate on the gains to be made in representing the actual vote. Larger states have different incentives.

This is a fundamental weakness in democracy. By giving power to the majority, it gives the majority the power to hide or marginalize minority opinions. This was one reason that the United States originally operated under a limited government--to reduce that. Of course, the Great Depression made people feel that it was more important to have national action than principled limitation.

What would it take to change that policy for future elections?

Each state can pick its own policy for how electors are allocated. In most states, this would be as simple as passing a law.

If you really want to look for a policy though, I'd suggest the National Popular Vote. If that were in effect, the election would have gone to the popular vote winner (currently projected as Hillary Clinton). That just requires 105 more electoral votes worth of states to join to take effect.

More importantly, the National Popular Vote proposal doesn't make any changes until it has enough support to make a decisive change. So adopting it doesn't cause elections to be lost because it switches votes in between. And it's even more representative than any division of the electoral college would be, as it counts each vote individually and every one affects the vote. In any district-based system, a large number of votes don't affect the final result.

If you want to encourage third-parties, encourage ranked voting, especially proportional voting at the House level. For president, a national law for nonpartisan primaries with ranked voting and electoral fusion would have the maximum effect. So people could be in the Green party and vote for Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, etc. in that order. After Stein and possibly Sanders were eliminated, Clinton would have had the Green nomination as well as the Democratic nomination. People could vote for their first choice first. Given politics though, this might be more realistically achieved through a constitutional convention.

Proportional voting in the electoral college is more representative but less influential. Going by the national popular vote is even more representative and the way that they have the system set up, everyone switches at once. So no loss of influence.

  • 1
    "With ranked voting, minor candidate votes [roll] over to the major candidates." Are you talking about IRV? There are many ranked systems, and IRV is one of the worst, producing bizarre winners in many cases. "That just requires 105 more electoral votes worth of states to join to take effect." Which seems unlikely to happen, since neither red states nor swing states will vote for fairness if they currently benefit from unfairness. :/
    – endolith
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 15:01
  • 1
    "winner-take-all by state gives the state more influence" -- IMO influence belongs not to the states but to the people of the states. There is no reason to aggregate votes in neighborhoods before presenting the artificially produced consensus as a uniform whole. If the votes split 60-40 in any of: a state, a county, a city, a race, an ethnicity, a gender, an income tax bracket, an education level (pick a group) they should produce 60-40, not 100-0 representation of said group. If there's no consensus within a state there's no reason to imply one.
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 22:41

"Winner-take-all" assignment of Electoral College votes is popular because it gives the dominant party the most leverage at national elections, and there is no rule that says states can't do this.

At first, winner-take-all Electoral voting does make sense over proportional voting (also called "the district system"). After all, how dumb would it be for the winners to freely give away up to half-minus-one of the electoral votes to their opponents?

The winner-take-all system is so obvious that there is just no question to many folks. But it would be dumb indeed to overlook the advantages that Maine and Nebraska already enjoy, simply because they use the district system:

1) Maine and Nebraska get more attention by national candidates than other similar states. You might say that they are always swing battleground states. Political theorists believe that swing states have extra influence on national policy, so any state that wants more policy influence today could grab that through proportional voting.

2) The district system would multiply the number of contested electoral votes. So if major candidates do their campaigning all around the country instead of in select battleground states, it is likely that the winning congressional candidates will be similar to the winning executive, reducing the time that the president will be at odds with congress.

3) Some people think that there are problems with the Electoral College, and wish for it to get replaced entirely. But that would require a change to the US Constitution, which is very difficult: it requires a huge majority of US states to come to agreement! But there is no such need for consensus with "the district system"... any (or every!) state can assign its next round of electoral votes proportionally (or "by district") without a change to the Constitution.

  • I'd recommend cleaning up your third point. There is a bit of ambiguity in it's reading. Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 20:36
  • @DrunkCynic, how's that? Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 21:05

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