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Analytics Magazine

Electoral College put to the math test

With the campaign two months behind us and the inauguration of Donald Trump two days away, isn’t it time to put the 2016 U.S. presidential election to bed and focus on issues that have yet to be decided? Of course not.

While political pundits and campaign staffers continue to rehash the respective campaigns’ strategy, not to mention the impact of reported Russian hacking and influence, leaked email, personal servers, FBI investigations and now an investigation of the FBI, I think we can all agree on two things: Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by about 2.8 million votes, and Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote, 304-227, and thus the presidency.

The discrepancy caused some people to take a closer look at the Electoral College and its state-by-state, largely winner-take-all format and question whether there could be a better method for selecting the president of the United States. MIT professor Arnold Barnett and Yale University professor Ed Kaplan, both longtime members of INFORMS (Kaplan served as president of the organization in 2016), were among those with inquiring minds.

In a Dec. 16 article (“How to cure the Electoral College”) in the Los Angeles Times, Barnett and Kaplan proposed an “electoral vote equivalents” (EQV) system in which electoral votes are allocated “in direct proportion to each candidate’s share” of each state’s popular vote.” The authors argue that not only would the EQV system make every vote in every state important, but it would also increase the importance of less-populated states, which was one of the main objectives of the Founding Fathers when they created the Electoral College in the first place.

At the time of the nation’s birth, a large percentage of the population was concentrated in a handful of urban areas such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. In their wisdom, the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College to give voters in the less-populated, largely agricultural-oriented states a modest weighted say in the presidential election.

Rather than repealing the Electoral College, Barnett and Kaplan say the EQV system would strengthen it by bringing every state into play in the general election, including electorate vote-rich California, Texas and New York, which are mostly ignored during presidential campaigns today because the winner of those states are a “foregone conclusion.” According to the authors, the EQV system would also increase the clout of small-population states because they tend to vote more lopsidedly than the nation as a whole, which pays off when the percentage of the margin of victory within a state matters.

Would the EQV system have made a difference in this election? Yes, it would have awarded the presidency to Hillary, say the authors. But as Trump noted, if the rules of the game had been different, he would have changed his campaign strategy.

– Peter Horner, editor, Analytics magazine and OR/MS Today magazine

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