Electoral College Explainer

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell

Grace Donnellan digests the US voting system ahead of the 2020 Presidential Election.

The Electoral College is a concept that confuses almost everyone, even the most politically aware among us. This has led to a barrage of different attempts at explaining the practice, even Kendall Jenner has taken it upon herself to try and educate her followers about the complex voting system. As US election season rolls around again, The University Observer is undertaking its own Electoral College Explainer, in the hopes of clarifying the process for our readers.

To put it simply, the Electoral College consists of a group of people, so called electors, appointed by each state who then formally elect the President and Vice President. Not confusing at all! When Americans go to the polls in November, they are actually voting for these electors who will then vote for the President. The Electoral College has its origins in the creation of the United States. Article 2, Section 1, Clause 2, of the US Constitution establishes the system and describes how many electors each state is allowed to have. The system was a compromise between a public vote and allowing lawmakers in Washington to choose the president. It was imagined that the College would act as an intermediary that public opinion could be filtered through. However, today the electors simply follow the election returns and cast their ballot without engaging in any discussion regarding the candidates. 

Since 1964 there have been 538 electors. This is equal to the total voting membership of the US Congress. Each Presidential candidate is trying to gain over 270 total electoral votes in order to win the election. Generally, states award their electoral college votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state in a winner-takes-all approach. States are granted discretion in this area, Maine and Nebraska divide up their electors in proportion to the number of votes each candidate receives.

Each state is granted a certain number of electors based on population size. The population of a state is taken from the US Census, therefore, states may lose or gain a couple of votes after each Census. California has the largest number of electors with 55, Texas follows closely behind with 38 electors, while New York and Florida tie for third with 29 electors each.

The system was created in an era when the size of the United States and difficulty of communication made it impossible to elect the president via a national public vote. The system was favoured by southern states, where a large proportion of the population was made up by slaves. These slaves did not have the right to vote, but under the Electoral College system, due to their larger populations southern states would be granted more sway regarding the potential president. Many now consider the system outdated and ineffective.

If a candidate won Georgia, California, Florida, and Texas they would have 138 Electoral College votes. If they won Montana, Idaho, both Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Vermont, Delaware, and Kansas they would only have 40. Due to a small number of states holding such a large number of electors, campaigning is mainly focused in these locations. Candidates neglect the vast majority of ‘safe’ Democratic or Republican states that are either considered won or lost before the election even occurs. Instead focus is put on these states with higher numbers of electoral votes, especially when these are considered swing states. A swing state is a state that has switched between voting Democrat and Republican in recent elections, an example being Florida or Ohio. This can cause problems as the needs and interests of the people of Florida are weighed more heavily than those of citizens of other ‘less important’ states. 

Occasionally a candidate may win the popular vote and lose the election. This has happened in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. The 2000 and 2016 election results led to more public scrutiny being placed on the Electoral College system. In 2008 Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, won 48.4% of the popular vote, with George Bush only securing 47.9%. Despite being the more popular candidate Gore ultimately lost the election, winning only 266 Electoral College votes. In 2016 Hillary Clinton met a similar fate. Nationally, she won about 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump. However, she only received 227 Electoral College votes. This has led to critiques that the system is undemocratic and can lead to drawn out recounts and even court actions, as was the case with the 2000 election. 

It is impossible to predict how the Electoral College will vote in the 2020 election. Both Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states that had voted Democrat since Clinton’s first election, voted for Trump in 2020. Nonetheless, the focus of campaign and media attention is still on swing states such as Florida and Ohio. As well as this, the issue of mail-in voting will greatly impact this November's result. Over the past few months problems with the UPS, legal battles regarding restrictions on mail-in voting, and Trump’s refusal to confirm he will commit to a peaceful transfer of power, have shown us that this is an election that will not be won easily.