What is the Electoral College? As America votes in the 2020 election, voters may be wondering how it works, why we have it, and where the magic number 270 comes from.
For starters, the “college” is not like a university or other institute of higher learning. It’s a group of people — 538 to be exact — who chooses the president and the vice president of the United States of America. The White House race is not decided by the popular vote, unlike local and state elections.
As a result, the winning presidential candidate only needs to secure 270 electoral votes and can still end up with fewer total votes across the U.S. This political phenomenon has happened five times: In 2016, when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton with nearly 3 million fewer total votes; in 2000, when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush; in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison beat the more popular Grover Cleveland; in 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden; and in 1824 when John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson but had the electoral college support.
Why 538? The number of electors in each state (and the District of Columbia) is equal to the number of congressional seats that state has in the House and Senate. Each state (and Washington, D.C.) has at least three electoral votes; the number of votes per state is determined by the number of representatives, which is determined by the population count from the most recent Census.
Congress has a total of 435 House members and 100 senators (two per U.S. state). The Electoral College has 538 members because the District of Columbia was awarded three electors with passage of the 23rd Amendment.
The magic number — 270 — is simply the minimum number of electoral votes required to secure a majority and win the presidential election.
Which states have the most electoral votes?
California has the most electoral votes with 55, followed by 38 in Texas, 29 in New York and Florida, 20 in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and 18 in Ohio.
Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming each have the fewest electoral votes: Three.
“Battleground” states are typically U.S. states with a large number of electoral votes with a balanced number of Republican and Democratic voters. Most states vote the same way every year, which is why analysts often say a candidate can “win the election” if they simply win a small handful of states.
In the 2020 race between President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden, Politico reports eight battleground states are being eyed as crucial to winning: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
When a presidential candidate receives the most votes in a state, they get all of that state’s electoral votes — except for Maine and Nebraska, which split electoral votes based on popular voting. So when millions of U.S. voters cast their ballot for a presidential candidate, they’re actually not voting for Trump or Biden — they’re voting for their chosen electors.
According to the National Archives, political parties in each state choose electors before Election Day, typically at conventions. Electors are typically party members rewarded for service and are all but assumed to vote for their party’s nominee — some states require it, and electors rarely go “rogue.” (There were seven “faithless electors” in 2016, the most since 1972, who went against voters’ wishes and cast votes for people like Colin Powell, Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul and John Kasich.)
If all of this sounds confusing, you’re not alone. It gets even more complicated when you realize 538 is an even number and a presidential election can technically end in a tie. This happened in 1800 and 1824, forcing the House of Representatives to choose the president.
When do electors vote?
The winner in the 2020 presidential election is not expected to be announced on Election Day, due to the large number of absentee and mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic. It may take weeks to determine a winner, but technically the race won’t be decided until the electors cast their votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December — or Dec. 14 this year.
In New York, 29 electors will formally vote in Albany with procedures and traditions that date back more than 200 years. It’s unclear how Covid-19 will change the proceedings, but the electors typically meet inside the state Capitol’s Senate chamber to fill out paper ballots and deposit them in a wooden box, leaving it to a clerk to count votes manually.
Why do we have an Electoral College anyway?
The U.S. Constitution set up the Electoral College because the founding fathers were said to be “afraid of democracy.” James Madison worried about what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority” making the wrong choice for president.
Alexander Hamilton said the Electoral College can ensure a Commander in Chief is chosen “by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”
Today, the Electoral College is considered more of a formality, but it could one day be abandoned for a more direct democratic process. For example, U.S. senators were originally appointed by state legislatures until the 17th Amendment made them directly elected by the public.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Electoral College could be abolished by an amendment to the Constitution, requiring a two-thirds vote of both chambers, or by states bypassing the college and joining the National Popular Vote Compact. States in the NPV would give all of its electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote, rather than the state’s popular vote.