A Breakdown of the Electoral College

By: Kira Paley  |  November 2, 2016

As one exits the polling booth on November 8th, she is proud to have just cast her vote for the next president. She’s excited to have her vote counted in the election, thinking that this one might be close. She thinks to herself, “Who knows? Maybe my vote will decide who becomes the next president.” Though this picturesque Election Day reverie is gratifying, unfortunately, it’s not quite accurate. Thanks to the Electoral College—the system through which United States citizens elect their presidents—individual votes count far less than is often advertised.

The Electoral College was founded by the men who drafted the Constitution to prevent uneducated Americans from selecting “the wrong” president. To do so, they established a system through which a group of individuals, called “electors,” elects the president based on the popular vote in their respective states.

Because of this system, when casting a vote for the next president, instead of simply voting for one’s preferred candidate, one actually votes for an elector who has pledged to vote for the same candidate for whom the individual voters voted. Each state has a number of electors that is based on its population; the number of congressmen and congresswomen in a state is the same number of electors it has.

For example, New York, a relatively populous state, has two senators and twenty-seven members in the House of Representatives. Therefore, it has twenty-nine electors. Less populous states, like Wyoming and South Dakota, each have three electors. California, the state with the most electors, has fifty. In total, there are 538 electors: 100 senators, plus 435 members in the House of Representatives, plus three electors for the District of Columbia.

In every state except for Maine and Nebraska, the electors must vote for the candidate that won the popular vote: If the Republican candidate wins the popular vote in New York, for example, all of its electors must vote for the Republican candidate, and that candidate receives twenty-nine electoral votes. This is called “winner-takes-all,” meaning that the winner of the popular vote wins all of the electoral votes for that state. In Maine and Nebraska, however, the electors cast their votes based on who won the popular vote in each congressional district. The winner of the popular vote, in these states, receives two electoral votes while the remaining votes are allocated, one each, to the winner of each congressional district.

In order to win the election, a candidate must receive 270 of the 538 electoral votes. That’s why candidates will often do most of their campaigning in larger states like California, New York, and Texas; if they win larger states like these, they win more electoral votes. A candidate who wins all three of these states already has 96 electoral votes, which is more than a third of what he or she needs to win the election.

A candidate could win the popular vote, but not the electoral vote. In the election of 2000, Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote with 48.4% of the country voting for him. He only won 266 electoral votes though, which left the rest to his opponent George Bush, making Bush president, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote, with only 47.9%. This in turn provided statistical evidence that the majority of American citizens were disappointed by that election’s results.

While not every voter votes for the same party in every presidential election, certain states—referred to as “safe states”—are historically known to vote for specific parties. States like Alabama, Kansas, Idaho, Arkansas, and Texas are Republican safe states, meaning the majority of their citizens usually vote for Republican candidates in presidential elections. California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are Democratic safe states, meaning that the majority of their citizens usually vote for Democratic candidates in presidential elections. Therefore, if one votes for a Republican candidate in a Democratic state, or vice versa, in a standard election, that vote does not really count.

There are also a number of “swing states:” states that are not historically known to vote consistently for Republicans or Democrats. These states, which include Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Florida, are usually targeted by candidates with heavy campaigning; candidates want to swing these states towards their party so that they can win the state’s electoral votes. Votes cast in these states usually are the most important; in these states, it’s often a close race.

The Electoral College has many opponents: Many claim that the system does not follow a normative concept of how democracy should work. The system is also criticized because it discourages voter participation and diminishes voter efficacy, as someone who does not live in a swing state has little reason to vote. It is deemed unfair because it places focus on large swing states while leaving smaller states in the lurch. It is in fact possible to win the election by only winning eleven large states. Some critics also say it is not efficient because it perpetuates a two-party system and puts third-party candidates at a disadvantage because third party candidates can only gain electoral votes if an entire state’s majority votes for them.

Because of the unusual nature of the 2016 election, with many Republican officials and voters straying from their party’s nominee, the Electoral College will play an important role this year. Certain safe states, like Texas and Georgia, might deviate from the way they usually vote, and swing states are as vital as ever. So while one vote might not count as much as some think it does, it is still important to vote, especially if one lives in a swing state. electoral-college-photo