Although Americans are taking to the polls this Tuesday to vote in the presidential elections, they do not really get to select the next president of the United States. Technically, the president and vice-president are selected by a group of electors, collectively known as the Electoral College. In a roundabout way, when voters go to the polls, they are really voting for the Electoral College, which then elects the president and vice-president. Consequently, winning the democratic popular vote in the U.S. does not determine who is president. Winning the Electoral College does.
How does this work exactly?
The Electoral College is made up of temporarily selected state representatives known as electors. In total, there are 538 members of the Electoral College, representing the 50 states and the nation’s capital, Washington, District of Columbia (D.C.). The winner of the elections must win at least 270 votes.
The constitution of the United States mandates that the number of the electors equals the number of congressional delegations, that is, the total number of senators and house of representatives. A 1961 constitutional amendment further increased the number of electors to include representation from D.C., which has no members of congress. The total number of electors is broken down to represent the congress as follows:
435 House of Representatives
3 electors representing Washington, D.C.
Whilst each state has exactly two senators, the number of House of Representatives depends on the number of congressional districts. This can be varied. For example, while states like New York and Florida both have 27 representatives, others like Alaska and Delaware each have one. California has the highest number of representatives with 53 members.
The Electoral College at Work
The selection of the members of the Electoral College has changed over the years. In recent years, this selection has happened at the party level during the presidential primaries. Electors inevitably represent the parties in control of the congressional districts and states.
This year, the Electoral College will meet on December 14, following the general elections, to cast their ballots for the president and vice-president in the individual states and D.C. Usually, their votes are presumed, based on the outcome of the general elections and the general rules followed by each state.
What determines the decisions of the Electoral College?
Individual states determine how members of the Electoral College vote.
Majority of states follow a winner-takes-all approach. That is, whoever gets the majority votes in the general elections in each state automatically wins all Electoral College votes in that state. For example, if Donald Trump wins majority votes in Florida, he may be presumed to have won 29 Electoral College votes. Fourty-eight states follow this rule.
On the other hand, two states, Maine and Nebraska, follow an Electoral College voting system that splits the Electoral College votes between congressional district voter outcomes and the state-wide outcomes.
In Tuesday’s elections, 529 of the Electoral College votes will be determined by the winner-takes-all principle. In very few occasions, pledged electoral votes have been changed by the electors in the past.
Does the American Electorate Count?
How important are the individual votes of the electorate then? Individual votes in each state count in so far as they, ultimately, determine the direction in which the Electoral College votes. In 48 states and D.C., the Electoral College is expected to vote in line with the popular votes of the people.
This explains why the U.S. has certain battle ground states, such as Florida and Texas. This is not merely because of the number of Electoral College votes at stake, but because party loyalties between the two main political parties are almost evenly split. Consequently, the votes, and the total number of Electoral College votes, could go either ways.
In 2016, although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, beating Donald Trump by about 3 million votes, she lost the elections because President Trump won 304 Electoral College votes to her 227.