Minimum Votes to Win the Electoral College

With a Republican once again winning the electoral college despite losing the popular vote, I was wondering, what, mathematically, is the fewest number of ballots needed to win the electoral college?

My first approach was to rank the states in order of votes per electoral vote, and assign the states with the fewest ballots per EV to one candidate until that candidate has enough electoral votes to win.

I found an interesting source of data in the United States Elections Project: They have already tallied in one spreadsheet not just the population of each state or the number of registered voters, but the projected actual number of ballots counted, including outstanding provisional / mail-in ballots. Since the goal is to compare electoral votes to popular vote outcomes, the number of votes cast by state seems the most relevant data to answer the original question. So, I used their estimated 2016 November General Election Turnout data, retrieved the morning of November 12th.

I put those in a spreadsheet which contains the number of electoral votes by state, added a calcualted column Ballots per EV = Ballots / Electoral Votes, sorted by Ballots per EV in ascending order, and marked the first 32 states as belonging to the electoral vote winner.

In the winner's states (marked as Republican [red] in the map below), I assigned the winner 50.01% of the vote, and the loser the remainder. In the rest of the states, I assigned the winner 0% of the vote, and the loser 100% of the vote. This of course is an impossible outcome in real life, but this is math, not real life!

This resulted in 30 million votes going to the electoral college winner out of 133 million votes cast: The winner won with only 22.5% of the votes.

Map of states assigned to winner by Knapsack method

Maps generated at 270 To Win.

Given that the intent is to produce the most electoral votes from the fewest total votes, I found it interesting that this scenario included in the winner's column many larger states that are typically thought of as underrepresented, including 3 of the 5 most populous states: California, Texas, and New York. But that intuition is based on a measure of population per electoral vote. The many factors that prevent residents from becoming voters - citizenship status, age, and voter enthusiasm to bother voting - reduce the total number of ballots cast in these states by more than most, and moved the voters in these states to in fact be slightly over-represented in the critical metric of ballots per electoral vote. I imagine enthusiasm is significantly driven by partisan makeup of the state. Florida, a swing state, gives voters far more reason to believe their vote might tip the national election, and has far more political operatives dragging voters to the polls.

But I also noticed that this solution produced a winner wih 284 electoral votes - a non-trivial amount more than the fewest electoral votes required to win. That New York was the tipping point state demonstrated that it might be necessary to un-select one state before adding the next state. I wanted to know if we could do better.

This seemed like a textbook case where the optimal solution needs to be found from among all possible ways to reach the current state, not just the most obvious one. So I whipped up a knapsack-style dynamic programming solution. For each number of electoral votes, it computers from each fewer number of electoral votes (including zero) which state, if any, can most efficiently reach the curent number of electoral votes. That is:

For EV_count in 1 to 538
    Mark ev_count as having no solution
    For subproblem in 0 to EV_count - 1 
        ev_gap  = EV_count - subproblem
        possible_states = states with ev_gap votes not in solution(subproblem)
        best_state = state in possible_states with fewest ballots per electoral vote
        If ballots(solution(subproblem) + best_state) < ballots(solution(ev_count))
            let solution(ev_count) = solution(subproblem) + best_state

Again assigning 50.01% of the winner's states' votes to the winner, and 100% of the loser's states' vote to the loser, the solution this found required about 2.5 million votes fewer to win: 27.5 million out of 133 million cast, or 20.7% of the total ballots cast. It did this by substituting the 22 electoral votes of Arizona and Indiana with Louisiana's 8 electoral votes, creating a solution with exactly 270 electoral votes. While an impossible scenario in any political reality (let alone the one we exist in), it is impressive just how unrepresentative of public preference the electoral college could get.

Map of states assigned to winner by Knapsack method

Map generated at 270 To Win.

Is it inevitable that the best winning solution would have exactly 270 votes? Perhaps not. I also printed out the minimum ballots to reach every other electoral vote total, and there were in fact three non-trivial such totals that required fewer ballots than the optimal solution for one fewer electoral vote (at 489, 498, and 508 electoral votes).

For this exercise, I broke out the states who assign electoral votes based on congressional district into separate "states" for the at-large and congressional-district based electoral votes by dividing the at-large ballots in half and assigning the other half of those ballots to the congressional-district based 'states' proportionally to the number of votes cast in those districts. I did not attempt to prevent any 'silly' cases such as an at-large winner who did not win any congressional districts, but fortunately the optimal solution did not require me to do so.

A list of the states assigned to the winner:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine (At-Large and Congressional District-based)
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska (At-Large and Congressional District-based)
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming


  •, a knapsack implementation of the problem in Perl. No, it's not especially elegant code.
  • states.txt, state data I used, in tab-delimited format
  • MinVote.numbers, a spreadsheet used for the first pass, with vote assignments modified for the results of the second pass.

First Violet

Alongside the California Poppies planted by a roommate last year, this year I planted the seeds from some Viola tricolors (a member of the Violet family) and some Shirley Poppies. The first flower appeared today, and although it is tiny, about the size of a quarter, it is pretty.

Picture of first violet

Another three men on a boat quote

There is something very strange and unaccountable about a tow-line.  You roll it up with as much patience and care as you would take to fold up a new pair of trousers, and five minutes afterwards, when you pick it up, it is one ghastly, soul-revolting tangle.

Just another installment of "some things never change": How many jokes in sitcoms have emerged from this phenomenon observed with earbud cords, now that everyone carries them around to use with their cellphones?


From Three Men in a Boat, a novel written in 1888 and taking place in London:

... [T]hey must have had very fair notions of the artistic and the beautiful, our great-great-grandfathers. Why, all our art treasures of to-day are only the dug-up commonplaces of three or four hundred years ago. I wonder if there is real intrinsic beauty in the old soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers that we prize so now, or if it is only the halo of age glowing around them that gives them their charms in our eyes. The "old blue" that we hang about our walls as ornaments were the common every-day household utensils of a few centuries ago; and the pink shepherds and the yellow shepherdesses that we hand round now for all our friends to gush over, and pretend they understand, were the unvalued mantel-ornaments that the mother of the eighteenth century would have given the baby to suck when he cried.
Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of to-day always be the cheap trifles of the day before? Will rows of our willow-pattern dinner-plates be ranged above the chimneypieces of the great in the years 2000 and odd? Will the white cups with the gold rim and the beautiful gold flower inside (species unknown), that our Sarah Janes now break in sheer light-heartedness of spirit, be carefully mended, and stood upon a bracket, and dusted only by the lady of the house?

That certainly sounds like a timeless-enough musing. Here we are, "in the years 2000 and odd", and most anything Victorian-era that has survived to today is now an antique. But the narrator delves into his reasoning, and quickly finds himself (as he so often does) at odds with reality:

That china dog that ornaments the bedroom of my furnished lodgings. It is a white dog. Its eyes blue. Its nose is a delicate red, with spots. Its head is painfully erect, its expression is amiability carried to verge of imbecility. I do not admire it myself. Considered as a work of art, I may say it irritates me. Thoughtless friends jeer at it, and even my landlady herself has no admiration for it, and excuses its presence by the circumstance that her aunt gave it to her. But in 200 years' time it is more than probable that that dog will be dug up from somewhere or other, minus its legs, and with its tail broken, and will be sold for old china, and put in a glass cabinet. And people will pass it round, and admire it. They will be struck by the wonderful depth of the colour on the nose, and speculate as to how beautiful the bit of the tail that is lost no doubt was. We, in this age, do not see the beauty of that dog. We are too familiar with it. It is like the sunset and the stars: we are not awed by their loveliness because they are common to our eyes. So it is with that china dog. In 2288 people will gush over it. The making of such dogs will have become a lost art. Our descendants will wonder how we did it, and say how clever we were. We shall be referred to lovingly as "those grand old artists that flourished in the nineteenth century, and produced those china dogs." The "sampler" that the eldest daughter did at school will be spoken of as "tapestry of the Victorian era," and be almost priceless. The blue-and-white mugs of the present-day roadside inn will be hunted up, all cracked and chipped, and sold for their weight in gold, and rich people will use them for claret cups; and travellers from Japan will buy up all the "Presents from Ramsgate," and "Souvenirs of Margate," that may have escaped destruction, and take them back to Jedo as ancient English curios.

Some things he gets right: "We, in this age, do not see the beauty of that dog. We are too familiar with it" recognizes that something cannot be valuable unless it is rare, which is pretty much necessary for anything old to be considered value.

But it is not sufficient. The many relics of recently bygone eras that are in less than perfect condition are worthless, unless they are an example of something extremely rare or amazing. Here the narrator fancies that, rather than being at the forefront of an era of ever-improving manufacturing and artistic technique, he is at such a pinnacle that his despised trinkets will be future marvels, regardless of condition or skill.

Given the tongue-in-cheek buffonery of his character's actions, I would guess that rather than believing the latter, the author actually disbelieved that his era's manufactured goods would ever be of value. And in that I can sympathize: What of today's mass-produced plastic goods will survive the test of time to be treasured in the future? Perhaps it's the very destructible, disposable nature of today's goods that guarantees that what does survive 100 or 200 years will be rare and treasured.

Matilija Poppy

Thought I'd at least put something on the front page to push that bike crash cut below the fold. So here's a picture of a Matilija Poppy, from the Tijuana Slough

Matilija Poppy