The US Presidential election uses an "electoral college" system, where each state gets a certain number of "electors" (votes), and those electors cast the official votes for President. Each state's law determines how those electors are selected, and which candidate they vote for.

Some states are "proportional", giving a candidate a percentage of electoral votes based upon their percentage of the popular vote. Some states are "winner take all", giving all electoral college votes in that state to the candidate that wins the most popular votes from that state.

Which states are the former? In the recent 2012 election, if all states had switched to "proportional" allocation of electoral votes, what effect would that have had on the outcome?

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    Nope, no states are proportional. Maine and Nebraska allocate by congressional district, plus the winner gets the other two votes. Nebraska cd #2 was marginally interesting, but didn't receive a lot of attention by the candidates for the reasons listed below. Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 1:32
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    This question appears to be about US Presidential elections, but it isn't very clear about it. I've made some edits to make this clearer. Politics.SE is not limited to US politics. Commented Jan 9, 2013 at 8:47

3 Answers 3


There are two ways this can be done. Neither is in the interest of the state to do so.

1. A True Proportional Allocation of Electoral Votes

Scenario: Electoral votes are apportioned according to the popular vote, with the winner getting the "round up."
e.g. A state with 10 electoral votes splits 53% - 47%. The winner gets 6, the loser gets 4. (Alternatively, you could go 5-5, but this makes it even worse!)

Colorado came the closest to doing this back in 2004, but abandoned it for a pretty good reason - going to proportional representation in electoral college votes almost guarantees that your state will be ignored.

The article even says as much:

"For the first state to do this unilaterally, we go way down in importance," said Dave Kopel, research director at the conservative Independence Institute in Golden. "Because there's not much to gain ... a candidate would be nuts to spend time in Colorado."

Imagine, for example, a state with 10 electoral votes, apportioned according to the popular vote.

Now, let's take the case of Alaska, which, according Nate Silver, saw the most dramatic swing from the 2008 election to 2012. (In the case of Alaska, the reason is pretty obvious - Sarah Palin's involvement in the election took a normally solidly republican state, and made it extremely Republican.) This most dramatic swing of the state represented a change of 28%.

In our hypothetical state with 10 electoral votes, this would represent a swing of 3 electoral votes - maybe going from say 9-1 to 6-4. That represents the top end of a state. Putting as much time and effort into the state yields, at most, 3 votes. If any other state doesn't do this, that state is worth 10 votes, just for swaying a few people. From an effort perspective, that state isn't worth campaigining in.

Now, again, Alaska in reality, only has 3 electoral votes. Thus, even with such a dramatic swing, 28% is less than 1 elector. As such, just about every 3 vote state will always split 2-1. And, in just about every one of the 3-vote states, it almost always goes in the same direction.

And, just to add insult to injury, remember that a blowout election is 60 - 40. Outside of the People's Republic of Washington, DC, getting more than 65% for any one party is well nigh impossible. So, again, in our hypothetical 10 vote state - what does a blow out get you? One, maybe, just maybe two votes. Again, compared to an all-or-nothing state, your votes just aren't worth that much.

In 2012, Obama won 26 states, and as such, would have been the winner, albeit by a much smaller majority in the Electoral College.

With such a minor return for such a major investment, a candidate has thus very, very little incentive to expend effort in such a state. It would be as if we went to a strict popular vote - why then would candidates bother with rural voters when courting their concentrated city cousins has much more result for the effort.

2. Congressional District Apportionment

Scenario: Winner of each Congressional District gets 1 electoral vote, and the winner of the state gets the remaining two electoral votes e.g. Maine & Nebraska

Note: I don't consider this to be proportional, but apparently others do. As such, I'm addressing it.

Overall, the commentary above holds true - going to such a scenario makes any effort in the state less desirable. Unlike the "9 battleground states" of 2012, you get the "35" (of 435) competitive house districts. Again, as Nate Silver shows, the number of congressional districts where the opposition party has a real chance has been narrowing dramatically. In 1992, there were 103 seats that could have swung either way. In 2012, there were 35.

Safe districts (for better or worse as @DjClayworth points out) simply don't get the attention. Likewise, one of the defects of a popular vote system (corrected by the Electoral College) is that rural votes don't get a lot of attention for the same reason. (If you have a choice of reaching 100,000 voters by buying ads in one TV market or ten, where are you going to buy?)

In practice, neither Maine nor Nebraska saw a lot of activity during the 2012 campaign. And, even though Obama won NB 2 in 2008, his campaign was unwilling to expend major resources there in 2012 - again ignoring it.

Looking at the results of 2012, assuming that the popular vote was unchanged, but that every congressional district voted according to the party of its member of Congress (not entirely valid, but the best proxy I could come up with)

Obama would have lost, 256 - 282

The methodology is as follows:

  1. Assign 2 electoral votes for the winner of the popular vote in each state - Obama 52, Romney 48
  2. Assign each Congressional District according to its winner - Obama 200, Romney 234.
  3. Assign all three votes for DC to Obama
  4. Assign Jesse Jackson, Jr's vacant seat to Obama

Romney = 48+234 = 282 Obama = 52+200+3+1 = 256

There are 9 states where the Presidential pick differs from the congressional delegation:

  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Iowa (tied 2 – 2)
  • Michigan
  • Nevada (tied 2-2)
  • New Jersey (tied 6 – 6)
  • Ohio (12 – 4)
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Interestingly, this exactly corresponds to the "battleground states" of 2012.


Using the Daily Kos analysis of presidential preference by Congressional District, we can get actual 2012 results:

  1. Obama won 205 congressional districts, Romney 230
  2. Again, allocating 52 state popular winner votes to Obama, 48 to Romney
  3. And, allocate DC's 3 to Obama, we get...

Obama loses to Romney 260 - 278

Interestingly, that is within 8 votes of being the exact opposite result as 2012. Obama still would have beat McCain 291 - 247, however, in 2008.

tld;dr> The point here is pretty simple - going to a proportional system guarantees that your state is either no longer in play or not really worth the effort. (So you push 1 vote in a state. Big deal!) Because of this, going to such a system simply reduces the impact of a state in an election, and is therefore not in the interest of the state to do.

A ME/NB result looks to favor Republicans, however. This is due to the fact that rural voters tend to be more conservative, and are perhaps, over-represented strictly based on population.

  • Maine and Nebraska? assign winner take all by congressional district, and 2 electoral college votes by statewide popular vote. I would suspect that Democrats might campaign in Texas, and Republicans might campaign in California and Texas with so many electoral votes at stake. The small states might complain about this setup though.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 3:36
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    "going to a proportional system guarantees that your state is either no longer in play or not really worth the effort', this is currently said about the current system. Heavy Democratic/Republican states are ignored for the handful of swing states. Proportional voting (similar to Maine/Nebraska)would leave 102 electoral votes up for grabs, but would probably favor large states, since they are worth the normal 2 votes + 1 for each congressional district. Although this might lead to more gerrymandering.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 4:26
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    Btw, allocating by congressional district is not proportional - house districts need not be the same population. (They can't be wildly off the mark, but they are not proportional.) Proportional would mean that the popular vote determines the proportion. In both Maine and Nebraska, you still have a first past the post in each district. In effect, you just created mini states. Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 4:45
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    I have to say that for me, living in a state that was ignored - i.e. not bombarded with attack ads for months at a time - would be highly desirable. Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 14:20
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    Actually - I want to ask that as a question. The analysis, in my estimation, is that it would still be unlikely. The question would "Would proportional representation increase third party chances in the US?" Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 15:03

As aforesaid, the more transparent the constituent state is to the popular vote, the more it disappears as a campaign object. In the case of directly voting for the president, the constituent states would be gone. That is a good thing.

If the several states did the right thing, and made themselves transparent to the popular vote, but the country did not change to direct vote, there are nonetheless effects. One is the greater value of the vote in the less populous constituent states, and the other is the greater value of a vote where the voters appear in smaller numbers. I doubt either effect is great enough to sway campaign around the country.

I cannot speak to the year-2012 election, but I used the statistics published by politico.com to, for my own amusement, answer that question for the year-2016 election: Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton had the same number of electoral-college votes, and Congress decided the election. (That year the number of votes for third parties was greater than usual—not very popular main candidates.) Congress s deciding the election would be the usual outcome.

As for assigning the fractions, the Hamilton rule is the best. Say there is a constituent state with 19 votes, and the popular vote is 12%, 34%, and 54%. That comes to 2.28, 6.46, and 10.27 votes. All rounded down the sum is 18, all rounded up the sum is 21. Therefore, the one with the greatest decimal fraction is rounded up, the other twain rounded down: 2, 7, 10. It is easy to imagine contentiousness over close rounding; better to switch to direct popular vote.


Best just to quote from archives.gov:

What is the difference between the winner-takes-all rule and proportional voting, and which states follow which rule?

The District of Columbia and 48 states have a winner-takes-all rule for the Electoral College. In these States, whichever candidate receives a majority of the popular vote, or a plurality of the popular vote (less than 50 percent but more than any other candidate), takes all of the state’s Electoral votes.

Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, do not follow the winner-takes-all rule. In those states, there could be a split of Electoral votes among candidates through the state’s system for proportional allocation of votes. For example, Maine has four Electoral votes and two Congressional districts. It awards one Electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the state-wide, “at-large” vote. It is possible for Candidate A to win the first district and receive one Electoral vote, Candidate B to win the second district and receive one Electoral vote, and Candidate C, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large Electoral votes. Although this is a possible scenario, it has not actually happened.

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