Get more FiveThirtyEight
Our perception of U.S. politics wouldn’t be the same without the Electoral College. Thanks to most states’ winner-take-all rules (Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that can split their votes), the Electoral College turns states into red and blue Legos. We comfortably call California a “blue state” even though it’s home to millions of Republican voters, and we refer to Alabama as a solidly “red state” despite the fact that a third of its voters preferred Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Plenty of Democrats are interested in changing that. Elizabeth Warren has called for the abolishment of the Electoral College, and a handful of states have signed on to a plan that would essentially bypass the Electoral College — members of the National Popular Vote initiative have pledged to throw their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner no matter who their state voted for, but the agreement won’t kick in until the states involved have enough electoral votes to guarantee that whoever they vote for will win. But the chances of either idea getting enacted are still pretty remote.
One way to understand just how skewed the Electoral College can be is by rearranging the states inside of it. We know what would happen if the Electoral College were gone, but what would happen if it were simply different?
Our current state borders are fairly arbitrary. Throughout American history, people have been proposing new states, but most don’t appear on the map today, either because they once existed but were later redrawn, or because they simply never caught on. But what if some of these would-be states were around today? Would moving those state borders, without changing any votes, change our political reality?
The short answer is probably not, at least in 2016: Of the 13 maps we tested, none of them flipped the outcome of the last presidential election. These new maps did shift the Electoral College vote margin by as much as 38 votes, but since President Trump won by more than 70 votes, it wasn’t enough to swing the election to Clinton.
Play around with the maps yourself to see what I mean:
(Please don’t write in to tell me about how, if any of these states had actually come to be, our politics would be different, the butterfly effect, blah blah etc. This is a thought exercise! I ignored some other realities as well: Faithless electors and split electoral votes don’t exist here, for example; all electoral tallies assume electors voted for the person who won their state. We redistributed all Electoral College votes based on 2016 population, which means some real states have more or fewer votes than they did in reality that year, when the Electoral College was based on 2010 population. Adding and removing senators also changes the total number of electors, so not all maps will add up to 538, the current total number of electors. In one map — The Republic of Texas — Texas’ representatives were simply removed, dropping the total number of electors to 498. And since Americans have proposed and rejected more maps than one person can draw, I used Wikipedia and my own interest level to decide which fake states to include. If you want more details about the technical process of producing these maps, a) God bless, and b) check the methodology section below.)
While none of those fake maps would have produced a different outcome in 2016, there is a relatively easy way to rewrite the past — if we free ourselves from the constraints of history and instead do a little strategic shuffling. By reallocating two protuberant state parts (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Florida Panhandle) to their neighbors (Wisconsin and Alabama, respectively), we can flip the outcome of 2016 with a single click.
This is all fun, but the states won’t be shifting their borders anytime soon. For better or worse, we will return to the same old red-and-blue map on the next election night, and we’ll simply be watching to see if any states change color. But even if the Electoral College isn’t going anywhere, it’s still worth remembering that nothing about our political map is inevitable.