A couple tidbits of Georgia election math

As you may have heard, there are runoff elections going on in Georgia today (January 5, 2021). You don’t need me to tell you this, and it’s probably too late, but if you live in Georgia, vote.

Also the presidential election in Georgia in 2020 was very close, as you may have heard: 49.47% for Biden, 49.24% for Trump. (The law does not allow for runoffs in presidential elections.)

But here’s the surprising thing. Below are two maps of the state of Georgia. Can you spot the difference?

There is one county with a different winner in the two maps – Burke County, in the east-central part of the state. And Burke was won by Clinton in 2016 (left map), but by Trump in 2020 (right map). The only county that switched winners switched in the opposite direction of the state as a whole.

(2020 results from the state’s official election results site, map by me. 2016 results from opendatasoft, map by me.)

Furthermore, what if Georgia had an electoral college made up of counties?

Historically this is not entirely crazy; Georgia used to have something called the County Unit System for statewide primaries. In this system the largest eight counties were classified as “Urban”, the next-largest 30 counties were classified as “Town”, and the remaining 121 counties were classified as “Rural”; urban, town, and rural counties got 6, 4, and 2 votes respectively, awarded on a winner-take-all basis. This benefited rural candidates.

With current population statistics, the “urban” counties would be Fulton, Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Clayton, Chatham, Cherokee, and Forsyth. These are the county containing most of Atlanta, six suburban Atlanta counties, and the county containing Savannah; this category would better be called “suburban”.). Trump would have won 308 of the 410 county unit votes in 2020 – he won 2 of the 8 “urban” counties, 21 of the 30 “town” counties, and 106 of the 121 “rural” counties. In 2016 he would have won 310 of 410.

Unsurprisingly, a system this biased was found unconstitutional. But what if we had an electoral college? We can start with a simple calculation:

  • in 2020, Biden won 30 of 159 counties, making a total of 53.69% of the state’s population (5,643,569 in Biden counties, 4,867,562 in Trump counties)
  • in 2016, Clinton won 31 of 159 counties, making a total of 53.90% of the state’s population (5,666,008 to 4,845,123) – the difference being Burke, mentioned above.

(Populations are census estimates from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget; I used 2018 estimates.)

This surprised me, but upon reflection, it makes sense – the red counties in Georgia are really red. But we all know a real electoral college gives smaller units undue influence. We can simulate that by adjusting the population of each county. In 2020 Biden won counties with 776,007 more people, but he won 99 fewer counties. So if we give each county eight thousand more “people” – analogous to the electoral votes that correspond to Senators – then Trump wins this state-level electoral college. Also in this world he’d be calling county commissioners instead of the Secretary of State.

But in any case we would not be talking about Georgia “flipping” from Republicans to Democrats between 2016 and 2020. The actual flipping was caused, mostly, by Atlanta suburbs moving to the left – but they happened to do so in a way where no counties crossed over. (The flipping of Gwinnett and Cobb, the two largest purely suburban counties, already happened between 2012 and 2016.). I haven’t explored this in-depth but it’s interesting to think about how an electoral college of counties distorts state-level results as a proxy for how an electoral college of states distorts national results.

One thought on “A couple tidbits of Georgia election math

  1. Interesting post and nice-looking maps. I think ‘distorts’ is a rather loaded word in this context, though. One could also say that the overpopulated counties ‘distort’ the electoral outcome based on counties.

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