The US Electoral College: An Explainer

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Throughout the coverage of the US Presidential Election, you may have heard the term ‘electoral college’. Perplexed? Here we attempt to make it a bit clearer.

Okay, this is a weird concept, but basically the people of the United States don’t actually elect the President. Instead they cast their votes for a candidate, but the final decision rests with a series of electors, with each state having as many electors as they do members of Congress (i.e- California has 55 as it sends 2 Senators and 53 Representatives to Washington, D.C.). These electors then cast a vote for a chosen candidate, in line with their states votes. By convention, most state’s electors vote on a winner-takes-all basis, so if a candidate wins a majority of votes in California, all 55 of the state’s electors will vote for that candidate at the electoral college.

Well that doesn’t seem very fair?

It sort of isn’t. Two states (Maine and Nebraska) do choose their electors proportionally (so Maine could have three Democrat electors and one Republican), but the rest of the time even if the popular vote is split 51-49, all of that states electors will cast votes for the candidate who won 51%.

What forces the electors to vote for a candidate?

Some states have laws that bind electors to vote for a candidate, but some don’t. This means that some electors can become what is known as a ‘faithless elector’, and cast a vote for a candidate who didn’t win the popular vote in their state. This, however, is rare, and the most recent case in 2004 involved a Minnesota elector mistakenly voting for a ‘John Ewars’ as President, presumably meaning John Edwards, the running mate of Democratic nominee John Kerry.

So how many electors do you need to win?

You need 270 electors for a win. There are 538 total electors, as the District of Columbia also sends 3 electors to supplement the 535 sent by the states representative of their members of Congress. This is why on election night you’ll see plenty of talk of maths, adding up each state’s votes to try and get a candidate to 270 first, at which point the election will be called for the victorious candidate.

Wait, 538 is an even number, what if there is a tie?

This would make things complicated, but any ties are resolved by a vote in the House of Representatives, with each state’s delegation (as opposed to each Representative) having one vote. The first time an election ended in an electoral college tie was 1800, but this was a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his own running mate. The election was settled in the House with the Federalist Party who had opposed Jefferson and Burr choosing the former.

After this occasion, the 12th Amendment was passed which means electors now have to vote separately for President and Vice-President. No straight tie has occurred since, but in 1824 the election was unresolved between four candidates and the House selected John Quincy Adams, even though Andrew Jackson won the popular vote. However, in a tied election, the Senate will then select the Vice President, meaning candidates on different tickets could theoretically be forced to work together!

Basically, ties are bad, but I can only see one scenario that produces a tie this election, see here.

So, can you condense all that?

Okay. States vote, candidate wins popular vote, electors per state then go to the Electoral college and vote for the winning candidate (unless they’re from Maine/Nebraska), votes are tallied; candidate with 270+ wins, if it’s a tie it gets messy and goes to the House.

It’s now an outdated process given on election night we will know the victor based on results that come out of the states on the night. But like many outdated American processes, it’s a tradition and by damn they’re gonna keep doing it!

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2nd Year Modern History and Politics student. Moans a lot about politics, unlikely to actually do anything about it. Direct complaints towards @FSGLoveman on Twitter.

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