So… how many votes do you need?


Recently I flipped through a book by Frank Morgan called “The Math Chat Book,” which includes a bunch of fun, conversational math problems.  One of them was particularly interesting, given that election day is…. tomorrow!

Here is the question: What is the fewest number of votes with which you could be elected President of the United States?  (Assuming two candidates and about half of the population in each state votes).

For a brief history of popular vote statistics, the lowest percentage ever by an elected president was John Quincy Adams in 1824 with 30.9% of the popular vote (he actually lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson, neither won the majority of the electoral votes, and the election had to be decided by the House of Representatives).  The highest ever was Warren Harding in 1920 with 60.3%.  Most presidents seem to get between 48-55% of the popular vote.

Now, to answer the question of the lowest possible…  The strategy is to win half the votes in states with about half the electoral votes.  So… about 25% of the popular vote.  Morgan says you can do even better since smaller states get more electoral votes per resident: just win 39 small states and the District of Columbia and you’d only need about 22% of the popular vote.

The whole situation changes if there are three candidates.  In fact, you can win it with less than 0.1% of the popular vote!  All you have to do is win Wyoming and have the other two candidates split the rest of the states so no one has a majority of electoral votes.  In that case the House of Representatives chooses the winner, you of course!!

I asked Chris Ratigan what he thought about this question, but I forgot to include the “half the population in each state votes” assumption.  So… his answer was that all you’d have to do is have a total of one person vote in the largest 9 or so states (until you get to 270), and then you’d win the presidential election with a grand total of 9 votes…

So if I could just get the 9 people who read this post to go vote for me, I could become president!


The Math Chat Book by Frank Morgan

Interesting NPR article

CGP Grey Video


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