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Electoral College: A Strange Way to Pick a President

With the US presidential election just around the corner, now is a perfect time to look at how voting for President of the United States works.  Surprisingly, it is not by popular vote, like all other US federal and state elections. In fact, you might remember that in the last 20 years, two US presidents – George W Bush (2000) and Donald Trump (2016) – both lost the popular vote but were still elected President. The reason this has happened, and could easily happen again, is because the system to elect a US president – the Electoral College system which is enshrined in the US Constitution – makes it possible. It might be far from intuitive today but the Electoral College was designed at the time by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between a popular vote and a congressional selection. There is an excellent podcast, entitled “A Peculiar Way to Pick a President, which discusses this unusual system of electing a US president. In this 30 minute podcast, Jesse Wegman of the New York Times editorial board, discusses the genesis and history of the electoral college system. The podcast not only covers the history and evolution of the system, but also covers the thesis for the attempts since the 1960s to abandon the Electoral College and revert to a popular vote like other US elections for federal and state offices.

In this article, I will cover six interesting facts about the Electoral College system. How are the number of Electoral College votes for each state determined?

The number of Electoral College votes for each state is related to a state’s population, but indirectly in a sense that each state gets a number of electoral votes equivalent to i) the number of representatives it is entitled to in the House of Representatives, plus ii) two, which is the number of Senators every state has in the Senate (100 total). The US House of Representatives has 435 members, which was fixed by the Permanent Apportionment Act in 1929. This Act also determined how the 435 representatives are allocated by state, which is adjusted based on a nationwide census that occurs every 10 years (this year in fact), with reapportionment effective three years later. To this total of 535 electoral votes across the 50 states, Washington DC gets three electoral votes, although the district is not represented in Congress, which brings the total electoral votes to 538. If you want to know more about the history of Congress, specifically how the number of each state’s representatives are determined in the House of Representatives (since this ties to electoral votes), read “How Your State Gets Its Seats: Congressional Apportionment.”

How many Electoral College votes does each state currently have?

The map below sets forth the number of electoral votes for each state and Washington DC, which range from 55 for the most populous state in the US, California, to only three for seven of the least populous states in the US – Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Delaware and Vermont .

To win the presidency, a candidate must win a majority of the Electoral College votes, or 270. You can see from the table below that 11 states with the most electoral votes have a one vote majority over the collective total of the other 39 US states (plus Washington DC).

Having a large number of Electoral College votes makes larger states more important, but because many such states tend to vote Republican or Democrat most of the time, candidates tend to focus on those states that are both meaningful as far as electoral votes and can swing to either party, typically referred to as “swing states”. Therefore, states with large numbers of electoral votes like California, New York and New Jersey which nearly always vote Democratic, and Georgia, North Carolina and Texas which nearly always vote Republican, do not get a lot of attention towards the end of an election unless they are considered “up for grabs” because the election appears to be close. I will discuss this further below.

How do states award they Electoral College votes?

The first thing to remember is that people do not directly elect a president, but rather direct how the Electoral College voters in their state should allocate their electoral votes. In 48 states and the Washington DC, a “winner take all” system prevails, meaning that even if a candidate barely wins the popular vote in that state (say 51%-49%), the winning candidate is nevertheless awarded 100% of the electoral votes for that state. The two non-conforming states – Maine and Nebraska – use a system called the Congressional District Method. This method awards the Electoral College votes in a state by congressional district, with two votes (representing the two senate seats) going to the winner. Apparently, the Supreme Court has not weighed in on how electoral votes are awarded, leaving this to each state to determine. It should be increasingly clear to you by now as to how a president can lose the popular vote nationwide but win the Electoral College vote, a quirk that is difficult for many people in the “greatest Democracy in the world” to fully digest.

With the Electoral College in mind, for which party (Democrat or Republican) do states usually vote in a Presidential election?

This article in Wikipedia – “List of United States presidential election results by state” – lists how each state has allocated their electoral votes in every Presidential election since 1789. I found it really interesting because it highlights some trends related to shifting demographics and tastes in the United States, and how these affect voters’ preferences. The trends also can help you understand better the swing states in this election.

With this being said, what are the states that currently matter most in this election, and does this affect campaign strategies?

I alluded to this above, but you can see right at the moment how Mr Biden and President Trump are focusing the last few days of their campaigns on those states that are “on the fence” and could therefore swing the election one way or the other. In fact, both candidates were in Florida (25 Electoral College votes) yesterday, an important – and perhaps essential – prize for whichever candidate wins the upcoming election. This past week has seen President Trump & team also visit Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona and Nebraska, whilst challenger Joe Biden & team visited Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and his home state of Delaware. The Guardian has identified eight swing states (number of electoral votes in brackets): Florida (29), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Arizona (11), Wisconsin (10) and Iowa (6). Polls have Mr Biden ahead in all of these states except Ohio. The New York Times lists 12 swing states, or as they call them, “battleground states”, including the seven of the eight above plus Texas (38), Georgia (16), Minnesota (10), Nevada (6) and New Hampshire (4). The website points to seven states that could determine the election, and I am listing them in order of most likely to be a tipping point to least likely: Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, North Carolina and Ohio. As you can see, there is general agreement by pundits as to the states that generally matter the most, confirmed by where the candidates are spending time in the dwindling days of the run-up to the election. As we saw in the 2016 election, the states that can go either way are very important on election night.

Which presidents lost the popular vote but won the election for President of the US?

There are five US presidents in 58 presidential elections since 1788-89 that won the presidency but not the popular vote. The first one of the five – John Quincy Adams (1824) – lost both the popular vote and the electoral vote but was elected by the House of Representatives because none of the four candidates running in the election secured a majority of Electoral College votes. Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) had similar unusual circumstances, in that – similar to Mr Adams – he lost both the popular and electoral college vote initially but was then awarded sufficient electoral college votes by a bipartisan Federal Election Committee to pip his opponent by one electoral vote. The most three recent cases were slightly less contentious (but of course controversial) because all three won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote, including Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. In the 2000 election, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000, but lost the electoral college in a highly disputed election, boiling down to a recount in Florida with its 25 Electoral College votes that was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court (5-4 decision along partisan lines) before it could be completed. Mr Bush was awarded the presidency with an Electoral College majority of 271-266. Most recently, current President Trump lost the 2016 election by the largest amount ever as far as the popular vote, with 2.8 million more Americans voting for Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. However, by winning some very close swing states, President Trump prevailed in the Electoral College vote by a tally of 304-227, surprising many and undermining the value of polls which were firmly pointing to Ms Clinton as the winner.


The US is arguably the largest and greatest Democracy in the world, but its system of electing the President is difficult for many to understand, and difficult for others to rationalise. If you have not already, I again encourage you to listen to the podcast I mentioned at the beginning of this article on The Daily because it also mentions ideas to improve the fairness of the system without necessarily requiring a Constitutional amendment.

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