You might be wondering, rightfully so after this presidential election, what the deal is with our Electoral College. You probably know that the candidate with 270 electoral votes wins the election, but you might be wondering: why 270 votes? And why does the candidate win via electoral votes rather than the national popular vote? This post provides a brief explainer of how the system works.
What is the Electoral College?
Rather than winning the election by a national popular vote – which would require candidates to secure a majority of the citizens’ votes – presidential candidates in the US must win a majority of electoral votes. Electoral votes are cast by each states’ electors, who together comprise the Electoral College.
Before the election, each state’s Democratic and Republican party choose a slate of electors who pledge their support for their party’s candidate on the presidential ticket. These electors are usually state party leaders and officials, and states vary in the procedures they require parties to use when selecting electors. On Election Day, when we cast our votes for our preferred presidential ticket, we are really, in effect, voting for one party’s electoral slate over the other. The slate of electors from the party that wins a majority of the state’s popular vote then casts their vote for the party’s candidate after the election. Of course, election coverage isn’t reported this way, and we all think of ourselves casting our votes for the actual candidates. But under the hood, we see that the Electoral College prevents us from voting for our preferred candidates directly.
While there are documented cases of electors casting votes for a candidate other than the majority’s choice, such defections have never been large enough to shift the outcome of the election. Some states even have laws on the books that require electors to vote for the winner of the popular vote.
How is the number of electoral votes per state determined?
The number electors for each state is determined by the number of seats a state holds in Congress, which is determined according to the state’s population. The most populous state, California, has the most electoral votes; accordingly, the least-populous states are constrained to three votes, corresponding to their three combined seats in Congress (two in the Senate, one in the House). There are currently 538 total electors, a majority of which is required to win the presidency. Divide 538 by two, add one, and you get 270 – the magic number.
This is a quick overview of the institution, just enough to perhaps answer some of your burning questions after watching Election Night coverage. In the next few posts, I’ll explore the origins of the Electoral College, its limitations, and the implications these limitations have on our democracy. The Electoral College is a unique system among democratic countries with presidential systems of governance, and it’s worth understanding how the system came to be and what it means for our democratic rights.
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