Those who closely observed the US presidential election this last Tuesday evening probably noticed that all the electoral votes went to just two people, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In a nation of over three hundred million people, two people getting all the electoral votes seems, frankly, unfair.
Typically, getting electoral votes requires a massive amount of work. Those who get them are usually endeavoring to become the next President of the United States. A candidate who simply wanted an electoral vote, and didn’t care about winning the whole President thing, could manage it with much less work.
Here is how they might go about it:
Democrat or Republican
The standard way to get some electoral votes is to be the nominee of either the Democratic or Republican parties. These people always get all the electoral votes. The last time someone who wasn’t the Democratic or Republican nominee won an electoral vote was George Wallace in 1968. Unfortunately, becoming the nominee of either the Democrats or the Republicans is a difficult task that requires years of political experience, carefully thought out policy suggestions, and not saying anything outright dastardly. This is clearly way too much work.
Libertarian or Green or..
The next obvious option, would be to sign on as the nominee as one of the two most popular 3rd parties, either the Libertarian party or the Green party. It may not be a good route to an electoral vote though, neither the Libertarians nor The Greens have ever won any electoral votes. They tend to get a few percent of the vote, but nowhere near enough to win any states. While the nomination is easier to get than it is for the Democrats or Republicans, it still sounds like an awful lot of work.
There were a number of other parties and candidates on various state ballots in this year’s election. The Constitution Party was the most successful and managed around 150,000 votes nationally. Other parties listed on ballots this election included: Prohibition Party, Socialist Workers Party, United States Pacifist Party, Legal Marijuana Now Party, and others. None of these got more than a smattering of votes, and none came anywhere near winning an electoral vote.
Without the support of a major or minor party the only other option is to run as an Independent. The most successful independent this year was former CIA agent Evan McMullin. McMullin ran as an Anti-Trump Conservative and managed to get over 20% of the votes in his home state of Utah (although no Electoral Votes) and over 400,000 votes nationally.
McMullin put nearly all his campaign effort into his home state of Utah. Utah typically votes Republican but the state’s large Mormon population was not particularly enthused with the idea of a Trump Presidency. Concentrating his effort in a single state was probably a good move for McMullin if he hoped to win an electoral vote. The goal was not to win the presidency outright, but to make it so no candidate got the requisite 270 electoral votes.
Concentrating a campaign on a single state is almost certainly the most efficient way to get an electoral vote. Campaign positions and issues can be tailored to appease the political whims of the populace, a smaller geographic area can make the actual campaigning cheaper and easier, and a candidate would simply need fewer votes overall.
The minimum percentage of the vote needed to win a state is just under a third. This assumes a nearly three way split among the independent candidate and the candidates from the two major parties, with a couple percent going to 3rd parties and other candidates. This split will be easier to achieve in a state where neither the Democrats nor the Republicans dominate.
If the goal is to get an electoral vote without putting in too much work, a good starting point is to find the cheapest electoral vote, in terms of the number of votes it requires. States are awarded an electoral vote for every congressional representative plus one for each senator. This means that the minimum number of Electoral Votes a state can have is 3, it also means that the smallest states have the most overrepresented voters in terms of the electoral college. Apart from New Hampshire, none of these are considered swing states, which limits the amount of campaigning typically done. This good news for anyone launching an independent campaign.
The best option is probably one of these:
Population per electoral vote: 195,369.
Number of votes for the 2016 winner: 174,238 (Trump)
Population per electoral vote: 208,681
Number of votes for the 2016 winner: 178,179 (Clinton)
Population per electoral vote: 224,076
Number of votes for the 2016 winner: 260,223 (Clinton)
Population per electoral vote: 246,075
Number of votes for the 2016 winner: 130,415 (Trump)
Which of these states is the best bet may depend on the candidate’s political persuasion and campaign strategy. Wyoming and Alaska are conservative while Vermont and Washington DC are liberal. There are two basic paths to victory, either try to usurp one of the major parties candidates, or try to get a decent chunk of votes from each of the two parties. As a three way race requires fewer votes to win than a two way race, trying to be an alternative to both parties is likely the best option.
The option requiring the fewest number of votes would be to be an alternative to both parties in Alaska. It has a small population, but the vote split was not nearly as one sided as in other small states-Trump won the state with barely more than 130,000 votes. Alaska voters are also more amenable to 3rd party candidates (The Libertarians and Greens combined got 8% of the AK vote this past election, much higher than they did nationally). The state might also be less averse to independent candidates. The current governor of Alaska, Bill Walker, ran as an independent in 2014.
The disadvantage of Alaska is its massive size and consequently spread out population, which might make campaigning expensive. A Washington DC focused campaign would not have this problem. While the city has overwhelming supported Democratic candidates in the past, Clinton received over 90% of the vote in DC, there might be room for a candidate running on a DC specific issue. A prime candidate for this, is a presidential campaign based entirely around DC statehood.
Maine and Nebraska
There are two states that do not use the winner take all approaches to dividing up their electoral votes, Maine and Nebraska. Each state gives 2 electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote and then 1 each to the winner of each congressional district. These individual districts could be treated like small states. The best to focus on are the relatively contested second districts in each state. Both went for Trump this last election, and have populations of between five and six hundred thousand people, putting them in the same broad category as some of the smaller states.
While winning even the smallest state will likely require at least 100,000 votes, there is a way to get an electoral vote with just a single vote. In US presidential elections, voters vote for representatives in the electoral college. These are actual people who do the actual voting for president. They pledge to support the candidates they are supposed to support, but (in most states) this support is not legally mandated. An Elector who fails to vote for the candidate they have pledged for, is known as a Faithless Elector. The most recent intentional Faithless Elector was in 2000, when Barbra Lett-Simmons abstained from voting for Gore to protest DC’s lack of congressional representation. Getting a faithless elector’s vote might be the easiest way to get an electoral vote, as it requires no campaigning at all.
There is a risk to all this. A candidate going for just one electoral vote could end up becoming president. Imagine a very close election in which the candidate managed to win the state of Alaska. For example, imagine an election map that looks exactly like 2000, but with Alaska going to an independent candidate instead of George W Bush. The final electoral vote tally would have been Gore: 266, Bush: 268, Independent: 3. To win an election, a candidate needs an absolute majority of the votes-270 electoral votes. If no candidate gets this many the house of representatives is the tiebreaker.The representatives can choose from the top three recipients of the electoral vote. This has only happened one time, in 1824 when John Quincy Adams become president despite getting fewer popular votes and fewer electoral votes than Andrew Jackson.
Winning an electoral vote would likely require at least 100,000 votes. This isn’t really that many, during this last election six candidates managed to get at least that many votes. Since these 100,000 or so votes will need to be concentrated in the right place they will be much more difficult to get. It is unlikely that any candidate who is not the Democratic or Republican nominee is going to win any electoral votes in the next presidential election. Sometimes though, unlikely events happen. Even in presidential elections.
 There have been a few people who have received electoral votes via faithless electors since then.
 Or something.
 They did get one in 1972 through a faithless elector. This made Vice Presidential Candidate Tonie Nathan the first Women, and first Jew, ever to receive an electoral vote. A bit of trivia you can now use to be annoying at parties for at least the next decade.