How the electoral college determines who wins the U.S. presidency

How the electoral college determines who wins the U.S. presidency

The electoral college has determined the winner of every U.S. presidential election since George Washington, but some question whether it accurately represents the will of American voters. 

Still, this year’s contentious presidential election between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden will come down to who secures the 270 electoral college votes needed to win.

Here is a look at what the electoral college is and how it works.

What is the electoral college?

Not a physical college, the electoral college is a process for electing the U.S. president. It’s different from that of other republics, where citizens vote directly for the president.

There are 538 electors in the electoral college, divided among each state as well as the District of Columbia. Electors vote based on the results of the popular vote — the number of votes cast for each candidate by citizens — in their respective states or districts, with the winner of the popular vote getting all of the electoral votes for the state in most cases.

The only states that do things differently are Nebraska and Maine, where two electors vote based on the results of the state’s popular vote, and the others are determined based on the popular results in each congressional district within the state.

Electors are allocated based on the number of representatives a state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is determined by population, plus the number of senators — two per state. 

D.C., while not a state, is allocated three electors. Each presidential candidate has a slate of electors chosen by the candidate’s party in each state. They are often elected state representatives, party leaders and activists.

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Why does the U.S. use this system?

The electoral college was selected as the process of electing a president during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. The objective was to preserve the power of the independent states within a national government, said Jason Opal, chair of the history and classical studies department at McGill University in Montreal.

But the process also is linked to slavery, he said. Slave owners in southern states didn’t want majority rule — particularly in states where enslaved people constituted the majority of the population — and a direct vote for president.

“James Madison, himself a Virginia slave-owner, said, ‘The South will never go for this. They will never go for a national elected president. They will only accept something like an electoral college, which would filter the choice by the states,'” Opal said. “The electoral college, from its very inception, has put the states in between the people and the president. And that was for a variety of reasons.

“In the founding period, it was hard to imagine the American people as a single political entity. Very few people thought that way. And it’s because slave owners didn’t want there to be direct majority rule — and it’s because a lot of Northerners as well didn’t want direct majority rule.”

How does the process influence campaign strategy?

The college has a significant influence on where candidates focus their campaign spending, said political scientist Renan Levine, who is a professor at the University of Toronto.

There are policy implications associated with that, he added.

“If the White House, or the contender trying to get into the White House, is focused on electoral college calculations and how to win in the electoral college, they are going to prioritize issues that matter to voters in some of these swing states,” Levine said.

As for what constitutes a competitive state, Levine said the balance between urban and rural areas is a strong determining factor. “Democrats win a lot of votes in metropolitan, urban and suburban areas. Republicans tend to win votes in small towns and rural areas,” he said.

There are exceptions to the urban-rural split, Levine said, as well as other competitive states that may not get as much attention due to their relatively low number of electoral college votes.

Can a candidate win the popular vote but lose the election?

Yes. A candidate can lose the election even after winning the popular vote because the electoral college is the determining factor. That means no matter the result of the popular vote, the candidate who earns 270 or more electoral college votes wins.

It happened in 2016, when Trump won a majority of electoral college votes despite falling short of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the popular vote by nearly three million. It also happened in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore defeated Republican George W. Bush in the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, but Bush secured enough electoral college votes to win the presidency (more on Gore’s Florida challenge later).

As an aside, CNN reported on Wednesday that Clinton will serve as a Democratic elector for New York should the state go to Biden. “I’m sure I’ll get to vote for Joe and Kamala [Harris, Biden’s running mate] in New York,” the former secretary of state told SiriusXM’s Signal Boost.

Have there been calls to abolish the electoral college?

Yes. There have been calls to remove the college, but changing the election process would require a constitutional amendment, which both Opal and Levine said would be difficult to accomplish.

Trump criticized the electoral college in 2012, because he thought Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney might win the popular vote but still lose to former U.S. President Barack Obama, Opal said. 

Four years later, though, the college enabled Trump to secure power while losing the popular vote. Levine said the electoral college has the potential to keep Trump in power if a similar result unfolds this year. 

A Democratic win in 2020 may not lead to its abolishment either, Levine suggested, particularly if the winner-take-all structure of most electoral college votes plays to their advantage in future elections. 

Do electors need to follow results of their respective states?

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t require electors to follow their state’s popular vote, but many states’ laws do.

In July, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states can require presidential electors to back their states’ popular vote winner in the electoral college. The ruling leaves in place laws in 32 states and D.C. that bind electors to vote for the popular-vote winner.

Electors almost always do so anyway. So-called faithless electors have not been critical to the outcome of a U.S. presidential election, but that could change in a race decided by just a few electoral votes.

Opposition to the electoral college grew after the 2000 and 2016 elections, when George W. Bush and Donald Trump each won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. (Mohammad Khursheed/Reuters)

Both Opal and Levine mentioned a way that the electoral college could be circumvented without abolishing it: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The proposal requires enough states to join in order to secure the 270 electors needed to win the presidency. Once that happens, those states’ electors would vote for the candidate who wins the national popular vote instead of voting for the candidate who wins their state.

“Nothing in the Constitution says how the electors are supposed to vote,” Opal said. “If you’re an opponent of the electoral college as I am, it’s a rather elegant solution to the problem.”

Levine said the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would be easier to accomplish than passing a constitutional amendment. “This proposal will preserve the electoral college, but it will make the electoral college simply a way of awarding the plurality vote winner,” he said.

“You’ll often hear, ‘Well, if it’s a national vote, small, rural states would be ignored.’ But they are ignored in the current system. It’s these closely balanced purple states that get the attention,” Levine said.

What if no candidate reaches 270?

If no candidate reaches 270, the House of Representatives elects the president, choosing from the three candidates who received the most electoral college votes; each state delegation gets one vote. The Senate would elect the vice-president through each senator casting one vote for one of the remaining top two candidates. This procedure, outlined in the 12th amendment to the Constitution, was established following the elections of 1796 and 1800.

This situation has only happened once — in 1824, when the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams — since the 12th amendment was ratified, Prior to that, in 1800, the House elected Thomas Jefferson in a tie-breaking vote between Jefferson and running mate Aaron Burr.   

Opal said the Constitution doesn’t clearly state whether it’s the newly elected Congress that votes, or the Congress that was sitting at the time of the election. The most probable scenario would see the new congress decide since they take office before the president, he said.

Is there a deadline for results to be confirmed?

Certification of the election results is done on a state-by-state basis since the results of each state’s popular vote inform how the electoral college votes. 

A candidate may challenge the results of a particular state according to its own laws and deadlines. Each state also has laws regarding recounts, including automatic recounts depending on margin of victory or requiring a petition from a candidate.

If approved, challenges could proceed through the courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was the case in 2000, when Democratic nominee Al Gore challenged the results in Florida. The Supreme Court’s ruling ultimately allowed Republican candidate George W. Bush to secure the state’s electoral votes and become president.

The electors meet in their respective states, as well as in D.C., on Dec. 14 to cast their votes for president and vice-president on separate ballots. After the electors cast their ballots, they are sent to Washington, D.C., where they will be counted in Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. The results are announced that day, with Inauguration Day following on Jan. 20.

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