In Depth

US election 2020: how the electoral college works

Biden holds formidable lead over Trump - but Democrats won the popular vote in 2016

With just weeks until US voters choose their future president, polling suggests millions of swing voters are set to back Joe Biden over Donald Trump.

But as we learned back in 2016, when almost three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Trump, votes do not always translate to victories owing to a quirk of US politics: the electoral college.

Many Democrats are worried that despite trailing in most polls, the incumbent may once again secure the White House thanks to the system - but how does it work?

What is the electoral college?

The electoral college is the name given to 538 “electors” who convene every four years - in election years - to cast one vote each to choose a president. These electors have the final say on who ends up in the White House.

Under this system, rather than directly voting for a president, eligible US citizens technically vote for the elector who is supporting the candidate that the voter wants to win. This means the election is guided by the popular vote, but is finalised and validated by the electoral college vote.

The electors are spread out across the 50 states of the US in ratios based on each state’s population. This is “supposed to guarantee that populous states can’t dominate an election”, but the calculations used to distribute electors have been the subject of controversy for decades, says The Washington Post.

For example, as the most populous state in the US, California has 55 electors, the highest tally in the country. The lowest number of electors that a state can have is three, as is the case in Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington D.C. and Wyoming.

However, these small states are still over-represented. 

California, which is home to 12.03% of the total US population, has around 10.22% of the electoral college, while Wyoming, which accounts for 0.18% of the US population, is given 0.56% due to the minimum electors rule.

So California “has one electoral vote per 712,000 people” while “Wyoming - the least populous state in the country - has one electoral vote per 195,000 people”, the newspaper adds. 

During an election, all of the electoral college votes in each state - with the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska - are “won” by the party that is supported by the highest number of voters, in a winner-takes-all system. In Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes can be split between parties.

The electors then usually cast their vote along the line of whichever party “won” the state, although they are not legally obliged to do so: occasionally, an elector will abstain from the vote or even vote for the opposing candidate.

These so-called “faithless electors” did just that seven times in the 2016 election.

How did the system come about?

When the US Constitution was being drawn up in 1787, a national popular vote to elect a president was “practically impossible”, because of the size of the country and the difficulty of communication across it, says the BBC.

But few citizens wanted the president to be chosen by lawmakers in the capital, Washington D.C.

The proposed alternative, the electoral college, “was also favoured by southern states, where slaves made up a large portion of the population”, adds the broadcaster , which explains that “even though slaves didn’t vote, they were counted in the US census (as three-fifths of a person)”.

After George Washington was elected to be the nation’s first president, the Founding Fathers “figured that consequent elections would feature tons of candidates who would divide up the electoral pie into tiny chunks, giving Congress a chance to pick the winner”, says History.com.

“But as soon as national political parties formed, the number of presidential candidates shrank.”

Winning the White House

As a result of this unusual system, presidential candidates often target specific states in order to to rack up sufficient college electors, rather than trying to win votes across the country. A candidate needs to win 270 electoral votes - half of the total plus one - to win the White House.

For example, both of the two main parties devote significant portions of their time and money to campaigning in Ohio, a delicately balanced swing state that offers 18 electoral college votes this year.

At the same time, other states with much greater electoral college influence - such as California and Texas (38 electors) - are given little attention by comparison, as they are considered “safe” states for the Democrats and Republicans respectively.

FiveThirtyEight forecasts the odds of Biden winning the electoral college at 78%, while The Economist predicts that the Democratic candidate has an 86% chance of victory. 

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