What if Colombia Had an Electoral College, Like the United States?

An electoral college system would completely change the political calculus in Colombia, giving some states more electoral importance than others.


If you are a Democrat in the United States, there has never been a better time to lament the undemocratic aspects of a uniquely American institution: the electoral college. While Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by nearly 3 million votes in the popular vote, 2.2% more votes than the Republican nominee, the United States Constitution stipulates that the winner of the electoral college, not the popular vote, moves into the White House.

It seems unfair in a democracy, does it not? In fact, it has happened a total of 5 times since the first presidential election in 1792: in addition to Bush and Trump, John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888, all won the presidency despite losing the popular vote.

So why does the United States continue to use the electoral college? To answer this question, let’s envision what Colombia’s presidential election would look like if it used an electoral college similar to that of the United States.

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In the United States, each state is given two electoral votes, for each of its two senators, plus a share of the remaining 435 electoral college votes proportional to the number of representatives the state has in the House of Representatives. This is based on a population census undertaken every 10 years. (Tiny Washington DC gets 3 votes in the electoral college as well, but given Bogota’s enormous population we will count it as another state.)

How Electoral College Votes Would be Allocated in Colombia

Thus, each one of Colombia’s 32 states (or departments as they are called in Colombia), plus the teeming capital of Bogota, will start out with two senators: a total of 66 electoral votes are distributed equally among all the nation’s states. This, of course, gives added electoral clout to small states, and gives a disadvantage to the most populous states. (This is what voters in California and New York often complain about.)

Then, the remaining 472 elector college votes would be distributed equitably amongst the 33 states, based on population. I used wikipedia to consult the respective populations of Colombia’s states, and then gave each state its fair share of additional electoral college votes, assigned proportionally depending on their population size.

This this is what that electoral map would look like:

And here is a map of how Colombia voted in the 2014 election, in which current president Juan Manuel Santos defeated Centro Democratico candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, by a modest 6% margin:

Colombian Presidential Election Second Round Results, 2014.svg

Colombian political divisions are geographically based

What is the first thing that jumps out from this map? The main political division in Colombia could best be described as the mountains (or altiplano as it is often referred to) versus the coast.

Centrist Santos (in the red) won every single state along the Pacific Coast, and virtually every state on the Caribbean Coast as well, with the exception of notable Alvaro Uribe and right-wing stronghold Antioquia, the state where Medellin is located. Zuluaga (in blue) dominated in the mountainous regions of the central and eastern cordilleras, with particularly strong showings in the Coffee Zone (Risaralda, Quindio, Caldas, and Antioquia).

However, this red/blue map, that is such a familiar sight, even to the casual observer of American politics, is meaningless for all effective purposes. It doesn’t matter who won which state…the only thing that matters at the end of the day is the popular vote.

What if the last presidential election has been decided by the electoral college instead of a popular vote?

Santos beat Zuluaga 51% to 45%, after an embarrassing loss in the first round election. However, under this scenario, he would have won 336 of the 538 electoral votes, or 62.5%. That turns a modest popular victory into an electoral college landslide.

What would the upcoming 2018 election look like under an electoral college scenario?

The most obvious result would be dramatically increased attention to the most populous states. We would see dramatic increases, as well, in state specific polling. Closely contested states with large populations would receive the lion’s share of attention from the candidates.

As it stands now, recent polls have given frontrunner Ivan Duque good news in Zuluaga strongholds. He also has consistently polled well in Southwestern Colombia: the states of Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Narino, that Santos won in 2014.

Former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro, on the other hand, has fared reasonably well in Bogota, and on the Caribbean Coast. Under an electoral college scenario, he would be expected to compete hard to best Duque in the vote-rich states of Bolivar, Atlantico, and Magdalena: which offer up a combined total of 63 votes. For Petro, it would be imperative to win all three of these, as well as Sucre, Cordoba, and La Guajira, while setting his sights on the greatest electoral prize of all: Bogota with 80 votes, or nearly 15% of the total.

It is safe to say, that without a clean sweep of the Caribbean Coast, and a victory in Bogota, Petro’s chances would go up in smoke.

Petro’s campaign managers would then move on to analyzing the closest states, and allocate resources and advertising dollars (or pesos) accordingly. That might mean, for example, very targeted campaign stops and ad buys in Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Narino; places where Santos won 4 years ago, but where Duque has polled well as of late.

Certainly, vote-rich states with a generally moderate political profile would be the biggest beneficiaries of candidates’ largesse. Indeed, the campaign resources devoted to a state would be a function of two factors: its number of electoral votes, and the closeness of the polls.

The Electoral College Map

Now, take a look at that previous map, but with assigned electoral college votes. Again, we are assuming that 538 electoral votes are allotted based on the American political system.

Blue represents states won by Zuluaga in the last election. Red represents states won by Santos. The numbers indicate the allocation of 538 electoral college votes on a per state basis, with each state having 2 senators, and a proportional allocation thereafter.

Colombia: Which states would be swing states?

Thus, Colombia would quickly become acquainted with a concept all too familiar to the American public: the battleground, or “swing” state. Whereas much of the Northeast and Pacific Coast are reliably Democrat or “blue states”, and much of the South and Great Plains are reliably Republican or “red states”…anywhere from 6 to 10 states are unpredictable and mercurial. Political pundits are unable to consistently predict which way they’ll go: prime examples of swing states in the US include New Hampshire, Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, and Florida.

In a Colombian presidential election, swing states would be the key factor as well. For purposes of this article, I define a swing state as a state which was decided by 10 or fewer points in the last presidential election.

Bogota, which was decided by 10% last time, immediately emerges as the major swing state prize. With 8 million people, and a diverse socio-economic profile, with vastly different demographics in the south and north, Bogota becomes the central battleground, with 80 electoral votes.

Behind Bogota would be a pair of states in northern Colombia: Santander and Norte de Santander, along the Venezuelan border. Santos won vote rich Santander’s 22 electoral votes by 10%, while he won Norte de Santander’s 15 electoral votes by a small margin of 4%. The media markets in Bucaramanga and Santander would be flooded by advertising for the critical swing vote. The situation would only be further complicated by the area’s proximity to Venezuela, which has emerged as a major campaign issue.

Tiny Quindio, nestled in Colombia’s mountainous coffee zone, would be the next swing state, with 8 electoral votes. Zuluaga won this state in 2014 by a 5% margin. In general, the right-wing’s stronghold has been in this northwestern corner of the country where uribismo had its start. A Petro victory anywhere in this region would be an ominous sign for the Duque campaign.

On Colombia’s eastern plains, Arauca would be the next swing state, with 5 electoral votes. Santos won Arauca by just 1%, making it the most closely contested state. Despite its small population, Arauca would likely emerge as a state of importance in a close election.

Finally, to round out the swing states, we have four demographically tiny states with just 3 electoral votes each: San Andres and Providencia (off the Nicaraguan Coast in the Caribbean Sea), and Amazonas, Guaviare, and Vichada: all three are remote and rural states in Colombia’s east.

Like tiny New Hampshire, which has only 4 electoral votes, these states could become key factors in a close election. As it stands now, leading candidates would be unlikely to visit any of these 4 “departamentos” due to issues of time, cost, and convenience. Under an electoral college scenario, where 80% of the electoral votes had already been decided, Duque or Fajardo or Petro might make one last campaign swing on private plane, to drop in to visit Leticia, San Jose de Guaviare, Puerto Carreño, or the Colombian vacation mecca of San Andres.

The Strategy Changes Entirely

Fundamentally, it should be abundantly clear that an electoral college completely changes allocations of resources and political strategy. It also greatly complicates an electoral landscape. Thus, in American presidential elections, we often speak of “political calculus.” While in reality, it has little to nothing to do with calculus, and much more to do with arithmetic, the reality is that an electoral college system would give some voters more importance than others.

Regions considered left or right strongholds would largely be abandoned by the candidates, while hotly contested states would see dramatically increased interest.

The prognosis for 2018: Duque Must Hold Down Petro’s Margins on the Coast

Finally, as we look a month ahead towards the grand Duque, Petro contest, a few points become clear. Duque has a two-pronged strategy at this point: he must do everything possible to hold down Petro’s margins on the vote-rich coast. He can not afford to be blow out in Bolivar, Cordoba, and Atlantico by 20% or 25% points. If he can get that margin down to 10%, he stands a very good chance of winning.

Duque will fair well in Antioquia, the Coffee Zone, and the plains, but he needs to also put together a credible strategy for winning Valle del Cauca and Cali, Cauca, and Narino. Unlike Zuluaga, he may win all three of these states, which is a very good sign for him.

Also, he needs to pay close attention to the “swing states” of Santander and Norte de Santander, capitalizing upon the current dissatisfaction with the situation in Venezuela.

Bogota, again, is likely to be a close fight between Duque and Petro, and will probably go down to the wire.

Ultimately, Duque cannot win merely with Centro Democratico and the Conservatives. He must also appeal to potential voters from Partido Liberal, Cambio Radical, and even some from Alianza Verde.

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