We’ve all heard of swing states, electoral votes and the ‘race to 270’, but what do they mean and how are they related to the Electoral College? This article is a brief guide to today’s election and an explainer of some odd but important constitutional politics which will decide the outcome.

What is the Electoral College and why does it exist?

The rationale behind the Electoral College (EC) lies with the Founding Fathers of the U.S. who didn’t trust the public and wanted an institution – a halfway-house, between the people who might start a “tyranny of the majority” to quote De Tocqueville, and Congress, which was deemed to have enough power – for choosing the President.

Thus, the EC was founded. It acts as a reassurance to states, weary of centralisation, allowing them to retain control of their franchises, and in the eyes of Alexander Hamilton: “preserves the sense of the people.”

How does it work?

In most elections, voters go to the polls and vote directly for a candidate, but in the Presidential election that’s not what happens. In reality, voters go to polls and vote for a slate of electors (delegates) who are then supposed to vote for the candidate that achieves the highest share of the vote in that state… generally.

There are, however, some exceptions to this winner-takes-all system: the states of Maine and Nebraska.

Nebraska’s five Electoral College Votes (ECV)

  • The statewide winner gets two of the five ECV.
  • The winner of each of the state’s three congressional districts wins one ECV.
  • Maine’s four Electoral College Votes.
  • Maine’s ECV is split the same way, so two for the statewide winner and a chance to get two more from the remaining two congressional districts.

Why do some states have more votes than others?

You’ll probably know that some states have more weight than others in deciding the outcome of the election – big states such as Texas and California and so-called ‘swing states’ such as Florida and Michigan – but how are their EC votes decided?

The number of electors or EC votes each state receives is equal to the sum of its Senators and U.S. Representatives. As a rule, each state has 2 Senators, and the number of Representatives elected to the House varies based on a ten-yearly census.

As an example, Texas has 36 Representatives so 38 ECV, while seven states such as Wyoming, North Dakota and Vermont only have one Representative in the House, giving each 3 ECV.

As there are 435 Congressional Districts and each state has 2 Senators, this makes a total of 535 ECV.

But Washington DC – which has no voting representatives in Congress – gets to contribute 3 ECV, which is as many as it would get if it were a state.

This makes for a total of 538 Electoral College Votes, requiring Biden or Trump to get 270 ECV to win. The formula being 538 ÷ 2 = 269 + 1 (50% + 1).

Is that it?

Not quite. After voters have gone to the polls on today, states will send their results to Washington D.C in the form of Certificates of Ascertainment. The EC delegations then meet in their respective capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December and cast their votes for President and Vice-President. Each state’s EC then completes the Certificate of Votes which is sent to the President of the Senate aka the Vice-President, which is currently Mike Pence.

On 6th January the following year, a joint session of Congress is held in the House of Representatives and the winner of the election is formally announced, with the new President inaugurated on the 20th. 

Does the EC have to choose the winner of the popular vote?

In short, no. In fact, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won almost 3 million more votes than Trump, yet Trump was chosen as President by the Electoral College because he won in the right states (such as Florida and Wisconsin), gaining more Electoral College votes than his opponent.

In theory, the Electoral College delegates could have chosen Clinton as President, a move that would have brought court cases opposing the decision, and possibly even a civil war. Even though some EC delegates, or ‘faithless electors’ do vote against the candidate chosen by their state, this is quite rare and some states including Washington, have made doing so illegal.

In the very unlikely case that there is a draw in the number of EC votes between the candidates (269 – 269) or a third-party candidate gets enough EC votes to prevent any candidate gaining 270, Congress gets to choose the President.

Is the Electoral College democratic?

There is a lot of criticism of the EC, especially during election years and for quite legitimate reasons, not least because the winner of the popular vote will not necessarily win the Presidency. This is a system that has generally benefited Republicans, which is why Democrats tend to favour abolishing the EC. The EC also over-represents small states, maintains the two-party system, and keeps the focus of the election on swing states.

In conclusion, the Electoral College is a complicated, antiquated and arguably un-democratic system for choosing the President. Created when only a small proportion of the U.S. population was eligible to vote, and those in power feared handing over decision making to the people.

However, despite its problems, the Electoral College is unlikely to be abolished any time soon and will define how Presidential elections are fought for a long time to come.

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