A Complex State of Affairs: The Electoral College Explained

December 13, 2020

4 min read

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What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is a democratic system that was established under the US constitution and determines who becomes president. This is usually initiated every four years when US presidential elections are due to occur. It is made up of 538 “electors” who cast votes for presidential candidates on behalf of US citizens. When Americans vote in presidential elections, they are actually voting for a representative (elector) of the presidential candidates’ party (usually Democratic or Republican). Each of the 50 states within the US are assigned a number of Electoral College votes. Each elector is worth one Electoral College vote. These electors are then obligated to cast votes for whichever candidate gets the most votes in that particular state. 

Most states use a winner-takes-all system and if, in the unlikely event a candidate led by 1 vote, they would win that particular state and its Electoral College votes. However, Maine and Nebraska split their Electoral College votes, awarding 2 electoral votes each to the popular vote winner and then one extra electoral vote per congressional district won within those states (2 in Maine and 3 in Nebraska). This is known as the “congressional district method”.  

The amount of electoral votes assigned to each state primarily depends on population size. For example, California, which has the largest state population of 39.5 million people, is assigned the most electoral votes at 55. On the other hand, Wyoming, which has a population of just over 570,000, is assigned 3 electoral votes. This year, people in California overwhelmingly voted for Joe Biden. Therefore, he has secured those 55 electoral votes. Meanwhile, more people in Wyoming voted for Donald Trump who will in turn secure those 3 electoral votes.

Are Electoral College Votes more important than the Popular Vote?

You may have seen the “magic” number 270 all over the news. This is the number of Electoral College votes required for a candidate to secure a majority (just over half of 538) and the presidency. In contrast, the popular vote simply shows which candidate accumulated the most votes across the country, but this does not determine who becomes the president. A prime example of this was seen in the 2016 presidential election where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with 65.8 million votes compared to Mr Trump’s 62.9 million. However, Mr Trump secured 306 Electoral College votes against Mrs Clinton’s 232 which is why he ultimately became the president. This has only happened five times in US electoral history. 

He secured these many votes by winning a number of key states known as “battlegrounds”. These are a handful of states which have a tendency of switching between Democratic and Republican every election and are fundamental in deciding the winner. These states are rather lucrative in boosting a candidate’s pool of Electoral College votes. One such state is Pennsylvania where Mr Trump won with a nail biting 0.7% lead in 2016, securing him a further 20 electoral votes. This year, Mr Biden is projected to win Pennsylvania, with those 20 electoral votes getting him across the 270 finish line, making him the 46th president of the US (pending legal action from Mr Trump).

Why is there an Electoral College?

A few hundred years ago, the United State’s Founders wanted to establish a balance of power between the northern and southern states. In the 1700s, states were much more autonomous and the federal government had less power than it does today. Many of these founders did not trust “direct democracy” (e.g. the popular vote) and instead looked toward a safeguard that would stop more powerful/larger states taking power away from the much smaller states. Therefore, the Electoral College was devised and implemented into the US Constitution in 1787. Nowadays, the Electoral College is more of a formality and some are now calling for a change to the system.

Will the system change?

There has been increased momentum over the last few years calling for change to the US electoral system, namely that the US should instead make use of the popular vote to decide the winner and scrap the Electoral College all together. Professor George Edwards III of A&M Texas University claimed that the Electoral College “violates the core tenet of democracy” in that it ignores the popular vote. Mr Edwards contended that the current system favours Republicans due to the demographic of crucial battleground states which are predominantly made up of older white voters. Historically though, both Democrats and Republicans have criticised the system when it does not work in their favour. 

A more valid argument for change is that there is an uneven distribution of Electoral College votes across the country. States are required to have a minimum of three electoral votes. Hence, a small state such as Wyoming is overrepresented (1 electoral vote per 200,000 people) compared to larger states such as California (1 electoral vote per 700,000 people) where it is underrepresented. Moreover, California has a larger population than 22 states combined but those 22 states represent a total of 96 electoral votes compared to California’s 55. Despite this, at present, there is no change to the system in sight and, naturally, it only seems to be the losers, not the winners, that complain about the system the most.

Report written by Dan Furniss

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