The Electoral College: Understand How Presidents Get Elected

Illustration by Burcu Ozdemir/The Guardsman. Instagram: @Ozdemrbrcu.

By Matheus Maynard


It’s almost election time, and many argue that it’s one of the most important elections of our lifetime. The United States has one of the most unique electoral systems in the world for electing a president, and many Americans don’t really understand how it works. 


The Origins


The presidential election in the United States has followed an indirect election format since the establishment of this institution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Unlike most republics, the president of the United States is not directly elected by the people. The president is actually elected by the electoral college.


Many argue that the Founding Fathers chose an indirect system because it would protect the voting power of states with small populations and rural areas. From this perspective, candidates would focus on big cities to rally their campaign. Others argue that the Founding Fathers were concerned that the average citizen living far away from the central government and in rural areas would not vote intelligently, and this would hurt the interest of the nation as a whole. 


How It Works


The electoral college is a temporary voting body that represents all the states and the District of Columbia (D.C.). This year, there will be a total of 538 delegates from all 50 states and D.C. However, this is not divided equally among the states; it is based on the number of congress members, and most of this number based on each state’s population. 


The number of delegates per state is based on the number of members in the House of Representatives and the two senators. For example, California has a total of 55 delegates, which this number is based on 53 congressional districts plus two senators. 


Alaska is the biggest state by area in the country, but it only gets three votes in the electoral college (one congressional district plus two senators) while California has the largest population thus receiving the largest number of electoral votes. Even though D.C. is not a state, it receives three votes on that total count.


For most states, the delegates are pledged to cast their vote for whoever wins the popular vote in their state.


The magic number for a presidential candidate is 270. If they have at least 270 electoral votes, they win the election or win the majority of the votes.


The Winner Takes All


How does the electoral college members cast their votes? Based on what numbers? This is where it gets controversial. The electoral college follows a rule of the winner takes all. Let’s exemplify with a fictional scenario:  if a state has 10 electoral votes and a 10 million population, and during an election, 6 million people vote for candidate A, and the other four votes for candidate B, all 10 votes of that state will go to candidate A. 


Nebraska and Maine are the only states who are exempted from this rule, as they allow the electoral delegates to cast their votes separately instead of in unity with the other delegates. 


Losing the popular vote but winning the election?


Regardless of the reasoning, this system is still in place and is often the target of criticism and as to whether it’s truly fair. Many Americans do not understand how it works, and this is a very important characteristic of the election in general. This system has allowed five presidential candidates to win the election while losing in the popular vote: John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) Benjamin Harrison (1888) George W. Bush (2000), and Donald Trump (2016).


 Safe vs. Swing States


In American politics, the concept of safe and swing states can help predict some of the results and will allow the candidates to focus on states that always vote differently each election, 


States like California, New York, and Illinois are safe states for the Democratic Party nominee while states like Alabama, Texas, and Utah are safe states for the Republican Party nominee.


Swing states are states that candidates focus their political battleground on. In 2020, the swing states are Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and some experts are considering Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Texas to be battleground states for the 2020 election even though they do not have the history of being a swing state. 


                                Only Democrats and Republicans?


Even though this article has only mentioned two candidates from the two main parties, the United States allows the existence of third-party or independent candidates. Californians for example will see the rapper Kanye West on their ballots for the presidential election this year.


Third-party and independent candidates are most likely not going to get elected under the current system, but their existence on the ballot can influence the elections. In 2016, for example, President Trump won the election in Michigan by only a few thousand votes, and many Democrats blamed the voters who voted for Jill Stein and other third party and independent candidates. 


What about 2020? 


Regardless of rules, systems, and theories, every U.S. citizen has the right to vote for whoever they want in the upcoming election. 


If it’s Joe Biden, Donald Trump, or even Kanye West who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years, it’s on the hands of the American people to decide. 

The Guardsman