Demographics and the Electoral College

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Demography comes from Greek root words meaning "people" and "the study of." It's essentially the study of human populations, settlement and migration patterns, and other activities. Last week, I noticed that many people lacked a basic grasp of demographics in the United States, particularly as to how population density (the number of people per unit of area, like an acre or a square mile) relates to the Electoral College (EC). I won't quibble about the EC, the U.S. system of choosing the president and vice president, at this point. That's a separate discussion. For now, I just want to focus on the relationship between the EC votes per state and the population density in those states, because many people seemed to misunderstand the maps flashing around various screens. After all, some of those maps, they looked really red, leading people to wonder how states that looked so red could vote blue, or more accurately, award their EC votes to the Democratic Party candidates (blue) rather than the Republican Party candidates (red).

The answer? Demographics.

Let's look at some maps side by side to make sense of that. The population density maps derive their data from the U.S. Census Bureau while the EC maps come largely from AP reporting on November 5. I might update some of the maps, but I'll say so if I do.

I'm starting with Nevada, because it's a so-called battleground state, and citizen commentary on the red blush of that state triggered this whole thought process. The first map shows the EC vote. Notice all the red? You can maybe see why some folks are confused. That's why we have the second map, which shows the population per square mile. All that green space = not many people. Those big areas of red land look huge on the EC map, but there aren't many voters there. Most of the people in Nevada live in urban and suburban areas, shown on the second map in orange to red clusters, and yes, their votes count, and they went Democratic. The areas on the EC map that look blue cover a smaller land area than the red but they comprise a majority of the population in the state. (Kinda like the genie in the bottle in Aladdin: Awesome number of people, itty-bitty living space.) If you're wondering why so much of Nevada is so sparsely populated, well, you clearly haven't driven across it. Some more vocabulary: Dense means lots of people concentrated in a land area while sparse means not so many people in the same land area. Think 1,000 jelly beans in a jar vs. 10 jelly beans in the same jar, or if we want to stick with Aladdin, a whole regiment of genies in a lamp vs. one genie in the same size lamp. More genies (or jelly beans) = more votes.

We can see the same thing in nearby Arizona and Colorado. Notice anything similar? Lots of green area corresponds to lots of red area, but the most populous regions, around urban and suburban centers, went blue. We're not talking small population differences either. The red clusters on the population density maps signify more than 5,000 people per square mile while the dark green represent less than 1 person per square mile. That's huge.

The same correlation (that's a relationship between phenomena or variables) can be see in the Pacific Northwest. People might wonder how all those "liberals" on the coast carry such a clearly big red state like Oregon? (By the way, liberal gets misused a good bit, too. Again, another post.) Well, there are many more blue voters concentrated in a smaller land area than red voters spread out across a big area. Oregon coast = wet and green = more people. Rest of Oregon = not so much. Again, you can drive across these states or even fly over them and look down when the cloud cover allows to see why. For people who have not been out west, it can be tough to grasp the sheer scale of the land area and the sparsity of the population on that land.

Population density is also why all those silly media people keep talking about a few counties in Georgia ... and Pennsylvania. Look at all that red on the EC maps below. These states are clearly majority GOP voters, right? Well, no. Overlay the population density maps and you can see, again, where most voters are and how they're voting. But surely the "liberals" in the cities and suburbs are stealing? Nope. That's not stealing. <Insert drum roll.> That's demographics! They're just voting, in higher numbers, in smaller land areas, but it's the numbers, not the land, that counts for the purposes of calculating who takes the EC votes in each state. (Again, the broader national EC vote is a separate post waiting to happen.) There's definitely more yellow in these states than in those above, which contributes to the tougher number-crunching happening there, but the most voters are in the districts turning up blue.

I can look at some other maps in a bit, but I'm going to leave it there for now. Short explanation? Most voters in these states voted for the Democratic candidates; it just doesn't look that way on the EC maps because the EC maps show only land area, not population density.

We like tactile demonstrations around my house, so I'll show you a kitchen-fun way of demonstrating population density. Check out the pan of oatmeal. The upper left corner, rather like Oregon, shows a mound of oatmeal. There are many more oats in the grid block there (or a great deal more density), which translates to many more votes than in other parts of the pan where there are fewer oats and they're more spread out (or more sparsity). In this pan, the upper left corner and one other could probably out-vote the rest.

Also, to conclude, this is why social studies education (which includes geography, or the study of physical and human features on Earth's surface and the relationships among them) matters. Well, that and it's just super-cool and interesting.

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