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  • Ellis Wyles

Guide: The Electoral College

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

With polling day scheduled for 3rd November, the US Presidential election is fast approaching.

Will Donald Trump win a second term in office? Or will Joe Biden win back the presidency for the Democrats? In an election described by some as the most important in American history, there is certainly a lot to play for.

However, amidst the excitement, it is important to remember that the president will not actually be directly chosen by the American people. In fact, their votes will go through a system known as the Electoral College, which is crucial in determining the election.

This guide will outline what the Electoral College is, why it is important, and will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the system.

guide to the electoral college in US politics

So, what is the Electoral College?

Technically, when Americans go to the polls, they are voting for a group of officials who form the Electoral College. These are a group of people (known as electors) who choose the president and vice-president a few weeks after the election itself.

There is a total of 538 electors, with the number of electors from each state determined roughly by the size of its population. For example, California has the most electors (55), while sparsely populated states like Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota have the minimum of three.

Generally, states award all their Electoral College votes to whoever wins the popular vote in their state. For example, Trump won Michigan in 2016 by only 0.3% of the vote yet received all of the state’s 16 Electoral College votes. There are only two states which differ from this rule, Maine and Nebraska. These states allocate two electoral votes to the state popular vote winner, and one Electoral vote to the popular vote winner in each Congressional district.

To win the presidency, a candidate needs to secure 270 Electoral College votes. In 2016, Donald Trump won 304 Electoral College votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232.


Why is the Electoral College important?

The Electoral College is vital in determining both who wins the election and the campaign strategy of each candidate.

As has been seen in two of the last five elections, the most popular candidate among voters nationally does not necessarily become president. In 2016, Donald Trump had almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, but won a majority in the Electoral College.

This is vital in determining a candidate’s campaign strategy because it creates safe areas and marginal areas.

Since some states are unlikely to change, candidates prioritise their efforts on a small number of so-called swing states. These are states that could reasonably be won by either a Democrat or Republican candidate.


Arguments for the Electoral College

Ensures the winner achieves a majority

The Electoral College guarantees certainty to the outcome of the presidential election since a candidate must win a majority of Electoral College votes (at least 270) to be elected. If the election was based on a popular vote, it would be possible for a candidate to win the presidency without any majority. For example, in 1968 and 1992, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton won the presidency with just 43% of the popular vote. It was the Electoral College that gave them a majority and a greater mandate to rule.

Rural voters have their voices heard

The Electoral College also ensures a balance between urban and rural areas when selecting the president. If the election depended solely on the popular vote, candidates could limit their campaigning to heavily populated areas. With the Electoral College, candidates need support from vastly different areas and are therefore inclined to develop campaign platforms with a national focus.

Arguments against the Electoral College

“Hillary won the popular vote”

Most pressingly, the candidate which most Americans vote for may not win the presidency. This has happened on five separate occasions and appears to go against basic democratic principles. Even Donald Trump, who himself benefitted from the Electoral College, has called for presidents to be chosen by the popular vote. He stated after his 2016 victory that: “I would rather see it where you went with simple votes.”

Some states have disproportionate influence

The Electoral College gives great power to swing states, giving some voters more influence than others. Candidates are more likely to appeal to states in which they have more chance of winning, tailoring their campaign strategy towards these swing state voters at the expense of others. For instance, during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made more than 90% of their campaign stops in just 11 swing states.

Few voters impact the overall result

Furthermore, voters who support the losing candidate in a state have little impact on the final decision. Despite Clinton voters in Michigan being beaten only narrowly by Trump in 2016, the latter won all of the state’s Electoral College votes. The votes of Clinton supporters were wasted because they had no effect on the national result. In safe states, there is little point voting since the result is usually already a foregone conclusion.

Is the current system likely to change?

There are two ways of changing the system: through a constitutional amendment, or action at state level.

A constitutional amendment would be incredibly hard to achieve. Three-quarters of states would be required to approve it and, with the current level of partisanship in America, it appears incredibly unlikely that enough states would support the change.

State-level reform appears more likely, with there being two potential avenues for change. The first would be to stop the winner-take-all nature of the system, distributing Electoral College votes more fairly and proportionally in each state. This is effectively what Maine and Nebraska have done. Another proposal is for states to agree to direct their electors to vote for whoever wins the national popular vote. Fifteen states plus the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to accomplish this. This plan would automatically take effect when states which together represent 270 Electoral College votes sign up, far less than the three-quarters needed for a constitutional amendment.

This will still be hard to achieve. However, in politics, nothing is certain. Polls suggest most Americans favour replacing the Electoral College. With Republicans most adverse to change, a future election where a Republican wins the popular vote but not the Electoral College could see support for an alternative rise.

Visit our US Politics section for more relevant resources and information.

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