Suppose that before an upcoming US presidential election, the nation decided (somehow) that the current system for electing the President was a bit stale, and chose to make things fairer (or at least, more interesting) by making a small tweak: Electing the President would work exactly the same as it did traditionally, except that in addition to voting for a candidate for President, each voter could optionally also write in the name of the State he/she wanted his vote to be counted in.

For example, if I live in Nevada but I'd prefer my vote for President to be counted as a vote in Lousiana, I could write in (or bubble in or whatever) "Louisiana" next to my vote, and my vote for President would be counted in Louisiana but not in Nevada.

Given that rule change (and assuming that effective safeguards were put in place to prevent fraud or other extralegal activities), how should we expect Presidential campaigns to react/evolve, strategy-wise?

  • $\begingroup$ Why not just ditch this outdated antic of electoral college? In XVIII century it was a good idea, but with advent of telegraph in mid XIX it should have been replaced. By XXI century it's hilariously obsolete. $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ The essential result would be that it would be "even more" unfair and there'd be "more to complain about" than the current system you have in the US. So there would be even more discontent amongst voters. Currently in the US it's common that you hear complains such as "in year Y candidate C actually won the popular vote!" and so on. There would be far more such complaining and discontent. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 12:45

7 Answers 7


Elections would be decided by strategies rather than votes. For simplicity's sake, let's assume that the campaigns could choose where their supporters voted. In reality, they could probably only encourage voter behavior, but let's think about it as if they had control.

Looking at 2016, the natural thought is that this would allow Hillary Clinton voters in a state like California to put their votes in more competitive states like Florida and North Carolina.

OK, but what happens when the Donald Trump campaign responds by asking some voters in California and New York to vote in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Nevada, Maine, Colorado, and Virginia? California may not have as many Republicans as Democrats, but Trump received more votes there than in all but two other states (Texas and Florida).

Another way of saying this is that Clinton's vote margin in California was smaller than Trump's total. I.e. she had less than double Trump's vote total in California. He could safely take all of his votes from there and put them in more competitive states. Meanwhile, she has to leave some of her votes there--she still wants to win the state.

Trump could also pull out of Utah, New Mexico, and Washington. Evan McMullin had enough votes nationwide to win Utah, and Gary Johnson could win New Mexico and Washington. Jill Stein might win Oregon. And that's just with the actual 2016 totals under the current system. Under this system, more might have voted for the third party candidates, as their votes could count.

It gets worse when we realize that voters won't necessarily vote as dictated. This makes it even riskier for Clinton to pull votes out of California. What if she pulls too many votes? She could potentially lose California. Meanwhile, Trump can safely pull votes out of California, New York, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, etc. States that he lost decisively.

Clinton's best bet would be to pull votes not out of California but out of Texas, West Virginia, North Dakota, and other states that she lost decisively.

Both campaigns would have to deal with the problem that they didn't actually win a majority of the popular vote. This is generally known about Trump, but was also true of Clinton. She only won 48.2% of the vote. While good strategy would give her a better chance of winning outright, neither campaign would be in good shape. They'd have a much higher chance of a tied result, which would have given the Republicans an advantage (they won the tiebreakers).

As a practical matter, the Trump campaign outperformed the Clinton campaign in allocating resources to states. They won three states that most people assumed that the Clinton campaign could rely on: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. There is no reason to think that the Clintonites suddenly would have become better at strategy under this system. And bad strategy is more costly here.

There's also a turnout problem. In California, many Republicans had no candidate for whom to vote. Trump wasn't going to win the presidential vote in California. Republicans didn't even have a Senate candidate running, both candidates were Democrats. Many didn't have a legislative candidate running, because they were in overwhelmingly Democrat areas. Now those votes could count. Overall, that would favor Trump. He was blown out in more electoral college votes than Clinton was. Clinton was blown out in more states, but they had fewer electoral college votes.

Overall, this system would have favored the Republicans in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2012, and 2016 due to the House tiebreaker. In 2008, it would have favored the Democrats. That said, it would have increased the chances of a Democratic victory in 2000 and 2004. But it would have favored the Republicans in 1996 and 2012.

This system would increase the chances of the winner of a plurality or majority of the popular vote losing the election. This is because the strategies have a chance of working. Note that if you select perfectly while your opponents select badly, you can win with just eleven votes. If you put one vote each in the eleven biggest states, you will win 280 electoral college votes while your opponents will only win 258. That's an extremely unlikely case, but it shows what is possible.

Worse, this favors the popular vote loser. The loser can freely choose among strategies. Even a bad strategy doesn't actually cost the election. The popular vote winner will be expected to win, which will favor conservative strategies.

It would increase the chances of an electoral college tie going to the House for selection. And this favors third parties more. A third party candidate can relatively freely choose a strategy. They have no expectation of winning, so they can choose truly arbitrary strategies. A third party candidate could potentially win by making a deal with one of the major party candidates.

Currently, if someone wins a majority of the popular vote, they win the electoral college vote as well (with the singular exception of Samuel Tilden in 1876). It's only when no one wins the popular vote that the electoral college has a different result. In this system, there would be a small chance of the loser winning in every election. It's a better chance in a close election, but even in a landslide, it's possible for a good strategy to overcome a vote deficit.

FiveThirtyEight.com simulated a similar problem with effectively a hundred voters and ten states with one to ten electoral college votes each. No third parties and they gave both sides the same number of voters. The first place winner would lose to two of the top four strategies. In general, the first place winner only wins a little more than 80% of the time.

Here the system is much more complex. More voters. More states. More electoral college valuations. More parties.


Third party candidates could win states, making a tie more likely. The major party candidates would have to work out strategies. For example, Trump might move his votes from states like California and New York to states like Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. Good strategy could overcome a vote deficit. But the best strategy would depend on your opponent's strategy. For example, if Clinton pulled votes out of California, perhaps Trump should put votes in instead and go for the win.

Think Rock/Paper/Scissors where Rock sometimes beats paper. The popular vote winner would be less likely to win under this system.


Well, all that would happen is that campaigns would try to take the excess votes from safe states and direct people in certain counties to vote for a battleground state. There wouldn't be much chance for brilliant strategizing, though, since you'd have to instruct voters publicly. Ultimately this idea would be poorly received; it would make elections feel more like a game than they already do. At least with the current system, votes are tied to states. This prevents parties from simply concentrating on, say, only states with large urban populations and helps ensure those in rural areas are not ignored. Our system is already one of the more complicated democratic systems in the world; making this change just puts it over the top.


The number of voting people (sorry for not knowing the name, not everyone is American) per state stays the same? This would result in a very complex "mess". Certainly the high voting people states would be most attractive and fought over, but collecting the votes from other states is still worthwhile. I think the end result would be that everyone has to go to the party of the guy he wants to vote for weeks in advance and they assign you a place to vote. Voting would become all about tactics. If you commit heavily to the highest voting people state (I believe California?), but your opponent puts no votes there and instead collects the 2nd and 3rd best, you are at a disadvantage. Effectively, that would end American democracy I think and turn it into a game of Poker.

This is even further complicated by the fact that if it looks like a game of Poker, you lose votes because of the way American media works. If it feels as if all you are doing is calculating how to win, you offer an opportunity for the media of the opposite party to attack you. I earlier stated that one could simply not let anyone vote in California, but instead use those votes to win other states. Well, people even now are for example arguing that Trump or Bush did not win the election because if the laws were different, for example a primitive majority voting system was in place, they wouldn't have won certeris paribus. While such claims do not matter right now, they will become more important and persuade more people once you can win elections with a lot less votes than now. On top of predicting where the other party places votes, you would have to make it look like as if the American democracy was still intact by sacrificing votes in states that you plan to lose. I would argue that after a couple of these insane elections, when people got used to those tactics that this will be less of a concern. But for the first few elections or when you pull an upset with great tactics, this could break your neck. So you do have to intentionally choose a sub-optimal strategy. I think this is such an interesting and complex idea, I advice you to write that story even though I do not think this would fix anything but instead destroy everything. Of course it would be dystopian, cynical and dark, maybe not what you intended, but certainly interesting. (since someone will feel the urge comment that nobody said anyone is writing a story, I already answer him/her: who cares?)

Btw, I am not American, I do not know if it is even possible. Don't you have voting districts? I know that people are heavily debating them because someone optimized them, but I couldn't find any information quickly enough to still be motivated regarding when they play a role in which election. I'm just blindly assuming what has been asked is possible.


What would happen: Eventually we would most likely get closer to estimating the popular vote, and eliminating the built-in advantages of states with smaller populations.

for those unaware of the crazy details of the American voting system, it stumbles along like this:

First, the founding fathers (from smaller states) did NOT like the popular vote idea. Before the Constitution they were sovereign, making their own rules. Under simple majority voting, they felt they'd be forever subjugated by physically larger states that would always have more population than they. They favored a system in which only states counted; and basically it was states voting instead of people. Larger states felt this was unfair to people, because (for example) a state with a million people only got the same say as a state with 10,000 people: A 100:1 disparity. Their solution to this dilemma was the American Congress, a House of Representatives (usually called just The House) chosen by population size, and a Senate chosen only by state (2 senators per State).

That solution extended to voting for the Presidency: Today we have 438 politicians in The House, and 100 Senators in the Senate. They created the Electoral College (EC), 538 people (different from the politicians), on the same lines: 2 from each state, plus 1 or more based on Population of the State, and it is THESE people that really vote for the President. The State can have its own laws on how the EC appointees (which vary every election) are awarded based on the vote; most award all the EC votes to whichever candidate won the State.

The result is skewed (intentionally by the FF) because the votes for President are not proportional to the population, meaning people in low population states (like North Dakota, Wyoming) have their votes count far more than people in high population States (California, Texas). Currently, the four most populous States (California, Texas, New York, Florida) get one EC vote per 650,000 citizens; while the four least populous States (for the purpose of voting) (they are North Dakota, Vermont, Washington D.C., Wyoming) get one EC vote per 200,000 voters: Better than a 3:1 advantage.

We can assume that in the first few elections under "pick your State", various Strategies would be tested, but (by the principles of Game Theory) eventually parties would coordinate and get pledges for votes in certain states and provide information to basically wash out any advantage for one side or the other.

That would include wiping out the advantage of winning a small state (and getting a disproportionate number of EC votes) versus a large state, which could only be accomplished by coordinating the state selection so that all states basically came up 50/50.

I don't think any of that would be illegal, as long as politicians do not pay for a vote, they are free to exhort people to get out and vote, and free to tell them how to vote (vote for Me! Vote for Proposition Y!), where to vote, and even provide transportation to the voting place. I see no reason they could not also say, "If you are voting for me, please visit my website and get a State assignment pledge, our system can show you where your vote is most needed for us to win, so that your vote will not be wasted."

Statisticians could figure out all those details to fine tune the vote AND figure out if they were going to win.

In short, the system would reach an equilibrium when all advantages provided by the current Electoral College System were eliminated and all that counted was winning a majority of the Popular Vote. At least, within some normal margin of statistical error; in a 50.1 to 49.9 contest, minor errors in a candidate's State Selection advice could still mean that the Popular vote was won, but the EC vote was lost.

In the recent Election (Trump v. Clinton), Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes, but that is completely accounted for by her win in California! (She had 4,269,978 more votes than Trump). Subtract 3 million from her vote there, and she still would have won the state by 1.2M.

Had she been allowed to distribute four million of her California votes to the less populous States, she could have won enough of the smaller states to win the election. Of course Trump would counter, and after enough back and forth, given perfect knowledge the person with the most votes to distribute would win the election. Barring perfect knowledge, the person with the most popular votes to distribute is just very likely to win the election.

  • $\begingroup$ You seem to forget the conception of "These United States" (the proper name of the nation until the Cvil War) was each State is indeed a sovereign nation, one which has agreed to share certain tasks like defense and overseas diplomacy with other sovereign nations. To maintain the balance it is essential that each State is roughly equal in political power, even if not so in size or population. The founders were also not fans of democracy anyway, the chose a Republican form of government to try to prevent government from being swayed by the passions of the mob. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides An outdated philosophy, in my opinion. I'm not interested in such a "balance", and I don't think the philosophy of the Founding Fathers is appropriate for modern times, technology, and morality. I don't really care what a handful of people 200 years ago wanted, I care about the living. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ As do I. Many of my American friends are thankful that the EC means they are not ruled by a handful of people in California, which is the result the popular vote would have created. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 4:33

Currently, parties direct money resources to regions where the vote is close, and where their efforts may tip the balance. With mobile votes, the votes become a resource just like money. Votes would be moved from safe area where an excess of voters of one particular persuasion makes the state safe for a candidate, and to an area where those votes might make a difference.

This would wind up with enormous numbers of votes cast in close elections, just as enormous amounts of money are spent on those elections.


It would be far simpler just to eliminate the electoral college and make the presidential election a straight election. Still, if we take the concept that people could choose the state their vote counts in and keep the EC, the results would be about the same, because most people just wouldn't think that much about their vote. Too complicated.

However, eliminating the EC would have some bad side effects. It would tend to deepen the divide between the various political factions. We have bad memories of what happens when a federal government ignores deep political divides, the situation in 1861.

The idea of the electoral college is to insure that a president has a wide appeal across the entire nation, rather than have the very populous areas decide the direction of the country.

Usually, that's how it works out anyway. In some elections, such as Reagan vs Carter or Nixon vs McGovern, the win was overwhelming by both measures. Only in rare cases, such as Trump vs Clinton or Gore vs Bush, is there a case where the popular vote is contradicted by the electoral college vote.

And, keep in mind, that while Clinton won the popular vote, the Republicans maintained control of both House and Senate, reinforcing the concept that Clinton's popular vote was limited to a few heavily populated areas.

Had Clinton won, she would have faced a hostile congress, and seen a repeat of the last few Obama years: almost nothing being accomplished. And, she would have continued the bad habits of her past, and been paralyzed by investigations into the ethically challenged actions that categorize her past, and would likely have continued into her presidency.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, the idea of the electoral college is that the founders were afraid uneducated Americans would eventually be duped by a charismatic charlatan or religious person. The educated ec members would prevent such a person from winning. Thank our lucky stars the American people haven't elected someone who fits that description... $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 16, 2017 at 1:42

The third party stands a chance.

Obviously, most people are going to put their vote in either battleground states or states that offer the most electors (Like Texas or California). A major flaw here is that even if 90% the population votes Candidate X, most will choose the highest states (California, Texas, Florida and New York). The problem here is that it only gives Candidate X 151/270 votes. If Candidate Y is smart, they can get their entire party to vote on the least popular states which there will be no competition for.

The problem here is that so much attention is on both Candidate X & Y that they will never be able to coordinate this. But a smaller candidate (Candidate W let's say) may be able to. While doubtful a third party could win, this system may allow for a third to finally win a state or two


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