What the research says: Apportioning electoral votes by congressional district would be a seriously biasing idea

Given that the apportion-electoral-votes-by-congressional-votes idea is in the news again, I thought it would be a good idea to point to some recent research on the topic.

Here’s what Andrew Thomas, Gary King, Jonathan Katz, and I found in a paper published a couple months ago in the journal Statistics, Politics, and Policy:

We investigate the effect on presidential elections if states were to assign their electoral votes according to results in each congressional district, and conclude that the direct popular vote and the current electoral college are both substantially fairer compared to those alternatives where states would have divided their electoral votes by congressional district.

That’s what the research shows. Apportioning by CD would lead to huge, huge bias in the system. Personally, I’d prefer a popular vote system but that’s another story. Doing it by CD would be a disaster.

14 Responses to What the research says: Apportioning electoral votes by congressional district would be a seriously biasing idea

  1. Jon B January 25, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    I think it’s a safe bet that the proponents of these policies have read this sort of research as well. They just happen to like what they see.

  2. PBR January 25, 2013 at 5:28 pm #


  3. lowell dearman January 25, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

    I agree with the plan. If it was the democrats, Obama would sign an EO mandating CD proportioning. Why should liberal areas which are heavily populated override the vote of others who are not..say rural voters? I like it and it will ensure fairness for Republicans.

    • Rick Almeida January 28, 2013 at 11:58 am #

      “Why should liberal areas which are heavily populated override the vote of others who are not..say rural voters?”

      Because they have more people, and that is a basic idea of democratic politics. Otherwise, minorities outweigh majorities. For example, under the proposed plan in VA, President Obama’s 51% vote share would have netted him only 31% of the state’s electoral vote.

      Do you care to offer an argument in favor of giving 49% of the voters 69% of the electoral weight?

  4. DavidT January 25, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    Andrew, you are right that *nationwide* electoral-vote-by-CD would be a bad idea, but what the GOP is proposing (doing it *only* in blue states where the GOP for now controls the legislature and governorship) is much worse. Jonathan Bernstein has criticized you for ignoring this distinction:


    Fortunately, at least in Virginia the GOP seems to be backing away from the idea, perhaps partly because Govenor McDonnell still thinks he could be on the GOP ticket in 2016 and bring the state into play. I predict that in Wisconisn the same thing will happen because of the GOP hope that Ryan at the top of the ticket would make the state winnable in 2016.

  5. Pat January 26, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Why don’t the Democrats push legislation requiring that congressional districts have equal numbers of people in them, with a 5% leeway? It seems to me that the only way this Republican gerrymandering has worked is that there are fewer people in the red districts, and more people in the blue districts.

    • Andrew Gelman January 26, 2013 at 4:57 pm #


      The districts do have equal number of people; that hasn’t been a problem since 1964 or so. The problem is the distribution of voters within districts: some districts have very high percentages of Democrats in them; the result is that a winner-take-all CD-based system would be very unrepresentative of the voters.

  6. Andrew Rudalevige January 27, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    A quick link to a piece Alan Abramowitz of Emory wrote on the topic, with similar conclusions to this post –

  7. ROGER LEHR January 28, 2013 at 3:17 am #

    Personally, I believe the best way would be to apportion votes based on the number of representatives allotted to the individual states, but not by congressional district. Divide the population of the state by the number of representatives in the U. S. Congress. Here is the caveat–an independent panel would be appointed to pool, across the nation, the counties within each state to allocate the votes. This would be a simple assignment of contiguous counties until the aggragate of each pool was equal to the quotient resulting from dividing the state’s population by the number of representatives. Based on the 2010 census this would result in a pool aggragate of 710,000 in each pool within each state. There would be a challenge in metropolitan areas, but overall it makes for a more balanced allocation of votes, but politicians would not be drawing the pools. Simple.

  8. Andrew Gelman January 28, 2013 at 9:52 am #


    I’ve long advocated nonpartisan districting plans for U.S. states. But it’s not clear that your plan would help for the presidential vote. One would have to do the analysis but it is quite possible that the result of your plan would be strongly biased just as the current system is. As we discuss in our paper, the bias of a system is an empirical matter, and you can get bias even if the plan is devised with no bias in mind.

  9. oldgulph January 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    When the bill is enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states with 243 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions with 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  10. andrewperrin January 28, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    The other thing this analysis exposes is the extent to which representation in the House is systematically and heavily skewed by these districts. If choosing electors by CD is seriously biased, then by definition so is choosing representatives, as we learned by the difference between the 2012 popular vote for congress and the makeup of the actual congress. What, exactly, is the virtue of having districts be geographically drawn at all, now that we’ve given up on them being coherent in any substantive sense? Of course, that’s the point Lani Guinier made 22 years ago.

    • Andrew Gelman January 28, 2013 at 9:25 pm #


      I see what you’re saying but there are differences between presidential and congressional vote. So “by definition” isn’t quite right, as the level of bias depends entirely on the partisan vote patterns, which are different for different offices. There’s a bit of split-ticket voting, enough so that you don’t always see a Republican bias in House seats, even when pres-vote-by-cd would show that pattern.