The Electoral College explained


Graphic created by Mariam Hanna.

Mariam Hanna, Editor-in-Chief

A mere five days are left before electors cast their ballots to determine who wins the presidency in the United States’ 2020 election. With this upcoming event, many people around the nation are asking about what this actually means. Here is the electoral college explained.

When writing the constitution, delegates had to decide between the vote for president and vice president to be one of the citizens or of congress. They compromised and created the electoral college.

Essentially, each state has a certain number of votes which is determined by the amount of representatives the state in question has in Congress. For example, Michigan has 16 electoral votes because it has two representatives in the Senate and 14 in the House. More populated states receive more votes because of this allocation system.

In 48 states, the winner of the popular votes takes all of that state’s electoral votes. For example, if candidate A won 68.2 percent of the votes Michigan voters cast, candidate A would receive all of Michigan’s 16 electoral votes to get counted towards his goal of 270.

Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions to this as they use a proportional system. The popular vote winner of these states does not take all the electoral votes. Instead, they split them based off of the vote proportionally. For example, in the 2020 election, 3 out of Maine’s 4 electoral votes are expected to go to Joe Biden and the remaining 1 to Donald Trump. Conversely, 4 out of Nebraska’s 5 votes are expected to go to Trump and the remaining 1 to Biden.

A candidate has to win 270 out of the 538 electoral votes to win the presidency. If neither candidate reaches 270, the House of Representatives votes between the leading three presidential candidates and the Senate votes between the remaining two vice presidential candidates. This has only happened once is U.S. history. Andrew Jackson had received more popular and electoral votes than John Quincy Adams and the other two candidates, but none of them reached the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. The House voted Adams into office. 

It is possible, however, to win the popular vote but not the electoral vote, therefore losing the election. Although this rarely happens with the two party system the United States has so strongly anchored into place, there is a chance it could occur. For example, in 2016, almost 3 million more ballots were cast for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, but she did not win the presidency because she received 227 electoral votes versus Trump’s 304. Similar situations occurred in 2000, and three times in the 1800’s.

A common misconception is that the electoral votes a state has are simply guaranteed numbers. However, electors are actual people who are nominated by each state’s political parties and then elected by citizens when they cast their ballots on election day. The parties typically select their slates of electors at their conventions. The exact process of selecting electors varies per state. These electors then meet and cast their ballots typically based on the popular vote of their states. 

Although the Constitution does not require that electors vote how the state they are representing voted, it is extremely rare that they do not do so. In America’s history, less than 1 percent of electors have disregarded their pledge and voted freely. Many states have passed laws that do require selected electors to vote dependent on the popular vote of the state. The legality of these laws were challenged in the Supreme Court in July of 2020, but it was decided that they are in fact constitutional. 

The Electoral College is set to meet on Monday, December 14, drawing the election cycle  near an end. To learn about the entire process, check out the timeline below.