Africa & World

US election 101: How the Electoral College works

By James Kahongeh

What you need to know:

  • There are 538 electors distributed across the 50 states and Washington DC, a federal district and capital of the US.  
  • To win the presidency, a candidate must garner 270 or more Electoral College votes.

Americans go to the polls next Tuesday in an election that could send Democrat Joe Biden to the White House or keep Donald Trump on for four more drama-filled years.

Unlike elsewhere in the world where voters directly elect their president, also known as the one man one vote system, the US election process is slightly different. The person that gets the popular can actually wind up losing, which is what happened to Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The American president is voted for by a small group of electors in every state in what is known as the Electoral College.  

The number of these electors is often determined by size and population of the state, and they tend to back the candidate that wins the most ballots in their state.

How does it work? 

Foremost, there are 538 electors distributed across the 50 states and Washington DC, a federal district and capital of the US.  

To win the presidency, a candidate must garner 270 or more Electoral College votes. In the event that no candidate meets this threshold, the House of Representatives votes to solve the stalemate.  

This combination of file pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden (left) and US President Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020.
 Photo credit: AFP

This scenario though, is a rarity, because the US has two dominant political parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

California (Democratic), for instance, has the highest number of Electoral College votes at 55, being the most populous state in the US with more than 38 million people, according to estimates from 2013.   

Other populous states are Texas (38 electoral votes, Republican) and Florida (swing, 29 electoral votes).  

Sparsely populated states such as Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana are assigned three electors each, and so are Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia and Vermont.    

How do the electors cast their votes?

The Electoral College is a winner-take-all system where the candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state takes all the Electoral College votes in that state.  

In this system, therefore, every state bagged by a presidential candidate anchors them within reaching distance of winning the White House.  

In 2016, for instance, Trump won the states of Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan by a paltry 1 per cent ahead of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, taking away all the 75 electoral votes in those states.  

Some state laws compel the electors to vote for the winning presidential candidate in that state. Even so, some members of the Electoral College choose to vote for the rival candidate.  

US President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a rally at Carson City Airport in Carson City, Nevada on October 18, 2020.
 Photo credit: AFP

These are called ‘faithless’ electors and often have no power to overturn a presidential election, as was the case in 2016 when seven electors voted against the winning candidate in their state.

In Maine (four electors) and Nebraska (five electors) though, two electors vote for the state’s winning candidate while the rest are allocated on the basis of the plurality of the presidential candidates. 

Throughout history, five US presidents have won the election through the Electoral College even after losing the popular vote.  

Interestingly, no Democratic president has ever won the election without winning the popular vote.  

Democrats, though, are known to win big in the popular vote. In 2008, for instance, President Obama won with the biggest margin of the national tally in recent memory, a reminder of his then rattling popularity.   

The closest race was the 2000 contest between former President George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Bush won the election by garnering 271 electoral votes, one more than the threshold, even after Gore had won the popular vote by more than 500,000 ballots.  

The highly controversial race was decided by a margin of 537 votes that Bush won in Florida, with 29 electoral votes, ahead of Gore. 

National polls so far this year put Joe Biden firmly in the driving seat, except it isn’t party time yet. During the last elections, Hillary Clinton led in the polls in the build-up to the elections, only to lose in what was perhaps the most upsetting election in US history.  

While she won the popular vote by more than three million votes nationally, Donald Trump carried the day with 304 electoral votes to Clinton’s 227.

How do the various US states vote? 

Historically, some states have tended to align with a particular party, either Democratic or Republican, hence blue and red states. These are called ‘‘safe’’ states. 

Come what may, these states throw their weight behind the candidate fronted by the party they have traditionally supported.  

Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Drive-In event with Bon Jovi at Dallas High School, Pennsylvania, on October 24, 2020. Photo credit: AFP

There are also the so-called swing states. These states do not have preferred parties, and vote based on various demographics and the ideological appeal of the candidate.  

Four years ago, election analytics platform FiveThirtyEight identified Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota as ‘‘perennial’’ swing states.  

Others were Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio.  

A case in point is Pennsylvania which voted Democratic (Obama) in 2008 and 2012 only to vote Republican (Trump) in 2016.  

With such erratic voting patterns, these states are usually the key battlegrounds, and often determine the direction of the presidency. 

Candidates direct their energy, resources and targeted campaign messages to these states hoping to sway the tide in their favour.  

Changing political landscape

Nonetheless, the landscape of voting patterns is dramatically changing, according to findings of FiveThirtyEight that focused on the 2018 primaries.  

As of 2020, Georgia and Arizona are now swing states and, therefore, more competitive.

Conversely, Colorado (Democratic) and Arizona (Republican), are less competitive than before, and are likely to vote in a predictable manner.  

Some states, usually smaller in size and with fewer voter numbers, differ on a number of parameters from the national average. The population here, for instance, is older and has a higher white voter composition. Often, most of the people here don’t have college education. Here, the non-white population is significantly lower.  

In 2016, President Trump capitalised on conservative Americans to deliver his White House ambition, like Republicans before him.

What’s the popularity of the Electoral College voting system?

Proponents of this model argue that it eliminates the bias of populous states dominating the presidential elections, by giving smaller states a voice in the presidential election.  

Critics of the system such as Prof George Edward III, however, posit that the system is flawed and unfair, as it robs Americans of their ‘‘absolute power’’ to decide who leads their country.   

With the second presidential debate already dispatched and pundits arguing that nothing could potentially tilt the vote at this stage, the race enters homestretch this week.  

Who will win this election? Let’s stay tuned and find out. ■

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