Race To The White House: How Does The Electoral College Work?

US presidents and vice-presidents are elected indirectly through a process called the Electoral College.

US voters elect their president and vice-president indirectly through a process called the Electoral College (EC), even through their presidential elections may seem like a directly elected personality race.

This makes the overall strategy for presidential candidate directed towards winning the maximum number of states during an election to grant them maximum number of electors at the EC, and not the maximum number of votes nationwide. This year, on November 3, incumbent President Donald Trump is gunning for re-election against his Democratic challenger, former vice-president Joe Biden. Currently, polls are indicating a Biden win and a record 47 million people having voted early.

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BOOM explains the process that decides the occupant of the White House.

A Game Of States

On election day, which is traditionally held on the first Tuesday of November, voters go out to vote for 538 electors that form the Electoral College. The number 538 encompasses one elector for each congressional district in a state (comparable in definition to a constituency) and one elector per Senate seat (that is two per state). The District of Columbia is assigned three electors, despite not having any seats in the Senate or House of Representatives. The EC formally votes for president and vice-president around mid-December, the US Congress formalises the result in early-January and the president is sworn in on January 20.

All states, for the exception for Nebraska and Maine, follow a 'winner-take-all' system of awarding electors. This means that whichever candidate secures a plurality vote in a state, that candidate is awarded all electors in the fray for that state. California is the biggest prize with 55 delegates awarded to the winner. The electors are in turn nominated at the state level earlier during an election year. Should a candidate from a party win a state, the candidate is awarded all electors nominated by that party.

In Maine, which has a total of four electors up for grabs, two electors goes to the candidate who wins the statewide vote, and one to the candidate who wins the majority vote in each of its two congressional district. Similarly in Nebraska, two electors goes to the statewide winner, and one to the winner of each of its three congressional districts.

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Due to presidency going to the candidate with a majority of electors, and not votes, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency but not the national majority vote. This was last seen in 2016, with Hillary Clinton losing the presidency to Trump, but winning around 3 million votes more than him. The winner of the presidency has not won the majority vote five times in history - 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016.

After the election, if none of the contesting candidates manage to secure the 270 votes needed to win the presidency, the election of the president is decided by the House of Representatives. Each state delegation is awarded one vote, which they can give to one among the top three candidates securing the highest EC electors. A candidate need to secure 26 of 50 delegations to be elected president. The vice-president is elected by the Senate from the top two candidates with the highest electoral votes, and must garner 51 of 100 votes to be elected.

Most states have their own political leanings, as data show that 38 of 50 states have voted for the same party since the 2000 election, giving rise to a number a 'swing' or battleground states. But demographic changes, levels of education and urbanisation can impact the quantum of these leanings, broadening the list of these states. This is the reason states like Texas, which was once featured as a strong Republican state, is being touted as a swing state, even though the list of such states is not written in stone.



"Faithless" Electors

What if an EC elector does not vote in favour of the candidate he or she is pledged to, or abstains from voting altogether?

Enter: faithless electors

Faithless electors is a popular term attributed to EC electors who do not vote as require, or abstain from doing so. The occurrence of faithless electors is rare, but not unprecedented. In 2016, Trump, as the victor, was awarded 306 electors. But, only 304 of them voted for him in the electoral college. Clinton was awarded 232 electors, but only 227 of them voted for her in the electoral college. The upset victory of Trump on election night saw opponents urging electors of the EC to break their pledge for Trump and to delay his formal election.

In general, parties only nominate those among their most trusted and loyal as electors to the EC, since the US Constitution does not require an elector to vote for a particular candidate.


In 2000, George W. Bush won the EC by just one vote (271), which was close to what his opponent, Al Gore received (266, with one faithless elector abstaining), and giving rise to a conversation around the prospect of the EC being used to possibly flip an election.

According to bipartisan research body National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states and the District of Columbia have various penalties spanning fines, disqualification as an elector or even civil or criminal penalties to prevent these flips and to ensure that electors are bound to their pledged candidates come the EC. Most of them require electors to sign a pledge that they will vote for the candidate of the party that nominated them.

  1. Oklahoma imposes a $1,000 for cross-voting
  2. North Carolina a $500 fine, the elector is deemed to have resigned and a replacement appointed
  3. Faithless electors face criminal penalties in South Carolina in New Mexico, cross voting is a fourth degree felony


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Updated On: 2020-11-02T14:25:39+05:30
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