On Nov. 8, tens of millions of Americans went to their local polling station to cast their ballot and elect the next President of the United States.
Except that’s not actually how it works. When we vote for a candidate, we’re actually voting for their designated electors. But who are these mysterious electors, how are they chosen, and what do they actually do?
The number of electors each state gets is determined by two factors: how many seats they have in the Senate, which is always two, and how many seats they have in the House of Representatives. Each candidate will select electors for every state in which they’re on the ballot.
Since the number of Representatives is determined by a states population, there can be a disparity between the number of electors per state. This is why California has 55 electoral votes and Utah only has six.
When a candidate wins a state’s popular vote, the presidential electors selected by said candidate cast their vote at the state’s Capitol. Each state will have the electors cast their vote on the same day, which this year is Dec. 19.
Generally, the winner of the state’s popular vote gets all of the Electoral College votes. However, Maine and Nebraska are an exception to this rule. They give two votes to the winner of the popular vote, and one vote to the winner of each of the state’s congressional districts. This is how Hillary Clinton got three electoral votes and Donald Trump got one in Maine in the most recent election.
A candidate needs to achieve at least 270 electoral votes in order to become the next president. However, it is possible that a strong third party contender could come along to prevent either the Republican or Democratic candidate from achieving the necessary number of votes.
In the event that no candidate has a majority, the House of Representatives would vote to elect the president. Each state would have one vote, regardless of population.
The Electoral College is often controversial. The assumption is that “we the people” directly elect our president, but this is simply not the case. This has been criticized as an undemocratic method of electing our president.
Another issue is that even though a candidate can win the popular vote, as Clinton did this year, they can still lose the Electoral College. This has happened four times, perhaps most famously in 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote, but due to shady counting practices in Florida George W. Bush won the presidency.
This also means that some states that reliably go blue/Democrat or red/Republican are left out of the campaign cycle, with candidates focusing their efforts on a handful of battleground states that could vote either way, leaving a large portion of the U.S. populace out of the full presidential process.