My inner pedant is offended

Recently Mitt Romney said: “I need to get 50.1 percent or more” to win.

No, he doesn’t. What he means of course is that he needs just one vote more than 50%, which is not at all the same thing since 50.1% can translate to a winning margin of 200,000 votes in a presidential election.

But even that is not true since in the US system one can win the presidency even though one gets a lower national vote total than one’s opponent. This has happened, with George W. Bush’s win in 2000 being the latest example, in which he got half a million votes less than Al Gore. What one needs to get are 270 electoral college votes.

Romney is not alone is saying things like this. Of course, Romney and the political commentators who use the “50.1%” phrase know that what they are saying is technically wrong. (At least I hope so, or the level of innumeracy is worse than I thought.) “50.1%” has simply become shorthand for the smallest of majorities.

But I still don’t like it because it is flatly wrong. Why don’t candidates simply say that they need a majority or, if they want to emphasize that even the smallest majority is good enough, say “50% plus one vote” or ‘bare majority’?


  1. karmakin says

    He needs to get 50%+1 of the electoral votes. Sorry, but MY inner pedant is offended :p

    (I’m actually of the notion that we’re going to see Obama lose the popular vote but win the EV)

  2. jamessweet says

    Mano double-posted, and the other post is longer. I think this one was an aborted attempt.

  3. Mano Singham says

    That’s right. The earlier draft should not have appeared. Sorry about that.

  4. TGAP Dad says

    Actually, he needs 50% + 2 electoral votes. There are 538 total electoral votes. 269 is 1/2 of that, but to have any more than your opponent, you need 271 votes, leaving your opponent with 268. FWIW, the 271 vote total is 50.37%. If you remember the 2000 election, Al Gore actually won the popular, national aggregate vote, but lost the electoral college (due primarily to Florida’s voter purges which were nowhere near as extensive as the ones Florida is conducting now).

  5. Mano Singham says

    No, the winner needs just 270 electoral votes which is 50%+1 of the 538 total votes.

  6. ollie says

    Even in a state, a candidate needs only a plurality anyway. President Clinton never got 50% of the vote, though he did come close in 1996

  7. itzac says

    538/2 = 269.

    In order to get a majority, the winner must get one more vote, or 270, leaving 268 for the loser. The winner will therefore have 2 more votes than the loser, but it’s still exactly 50% + 1.

    Though I’m sure you’ve already figure out your mistake by now.

  8. itzac says

    It’s the 21st century. You could easily vote directly for the president and do away with the electoral college altogether. Or am I missing some other reason for it besides the logistics of counting votes across half a continent in the 18th century.

  9. Mano Singham says

    The only reasons in favor that I can think of for retaining electoral votes is to prevent candidates from winning the presidency by running up huge vote totals in the more populous states and ignoring the less populous ones. I don’t know if this is a sufficiently good reason to retain the current system, but it is not negligible.

  10. lorn says

    It works his way if there are one thousand voters.

    Otherwise you’re right.

    And yes, this is a bit inside baseball.

  11. says

    Other than the barrier of needing to amend the Constitution (a lengthy and difficult process), no, there’s no justification for the current system. It was designed by a bunch of rich white educated men to prevent the masses from getting out of control and you know, running the country.

    As to Mano’s objection, that’s of next to no importance compared to the current situation that essentially disenfranchises anyone who lives in a non-swing state. Voting for a Republican president in California or a Democrat in Texas has been meaningless for a long time, even though these are populous states with millions of such votes cast. Eventually demographics change, obviously, but so slowly that you can see it coming several election cycles in advance.

    Much of the problem could be corrected by striking just the winner-take-all aspect of the assignment of a state’s electoral votes. There are even a few typically unimportant states that award delegates proportionally. You have to change all the states at once to do this right, though, otherwise it’s an easy mechanism for one party to steal elections.

    By far the biggest reason the existing parties will do nothing about the electoral college system is that it helps them maintain the two-party system. Any changes to enfranchise more voters would be of great help to building an independent third party. For example, it’s extremely likely that the libertarian and green parties would be able to get at least a modest foothold using a completely proportional non-discriminatory nationwide scheme. Any non-trivial showing at the presidential level could build over the years and influence congressional races as well.

    Even more devastating would be changing the election system to use ranked instant runoff voting (IRV). This allows casting a vote for a fringe candidate without “throwing away” your vote, since if your preferred candidate doesn’t reach the margin of victory, it will automatically be reassigned to the next choice who does. This system is also more efficient, because it completely eliminates the need for runoff votes if no candidate reaches a majority. The rankings given by voters the first time is enough to determine the correct winner.

    No voting system is perfect, though. IRV still fails on a few properties, most of which are also failed by the current system. For example, a candidate being able to win a head-to-head race with every one of their opponents can still lose in IRV. It also doesn’t guarantee that the closest effective personal ranking of candidates for your desired outcome is the obvious one (by strict ordered preference high to low). Lastly, it doesn’t promise that the best move to help your #1 candidate is not to vote at all.

    There’s a different ranked voting system called the Schulze method which addresses some of these issues. Even it has the flaw that not participating can be the most effective option at getting your ideal candidate elected.

  12. Mano Singham says

    I am also a huge fan of the IRV system for all the reasons you give. The fact that a system with such obvious advantages is not even considered tells you a lot about how the current system is rigged.

  13. Maverick says

    At a minimum, you don’t need anywhere near 50% of the votes. You only need slightly more than half the votes in half the states (assuming all wins are 50%+1 and all losses are 100%).

    In other words, you could become President with only ~25%+25 of the votes (less if you factor in that some EVs represent less people than others).

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