Every Vote Counts! … Or Does It? The Electoral College: Explained

By Anna Di Iorio-Reyes

In the 2016 presidential election, around 2.9 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump. So why did Trump become president? Even though Mrs. Clinton won the popular vote, Trump won the Electoral College; a crucial victory which allowed him to be in office, but also led to his inability to be re-elected last year, in 2020. 

The Electoral College is a complicated system that decides the President of the United States. Perhaps what makes this system seem hard to understand is that when a citizen is voting, they aren’t technically voting for president, even though they are selecting a candidate’s name on the ballot. What they’re actually voting for is if they want the electors in their state to vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate in the Electoral College meeting (more on that later). Those who are ‘directly’ voting are called electors: people elected by the political parties in each state to become a part of the Electoral College. What qualifies a person to be an elector is showing a certain dedication to a political party, for example being a state official or party leader.

 The number of electors in each state depends on the total number of senators and representatives in congress. For example, California (the state with the most electoral votes) has 53 representatives and 2 senators, which sums up to 55: the number of electors in that state.     Each state is entitled to at least 3 electors, but there needs to be 538 total electors in the country. 

You may have heard the number ‘270’ come up around the time of an election, including last year. 270 is the number of electoral votes a presidential candidate needs to become president. For example, if California “goes blue”–the democratic candidate wins that state– then all of those 55 electors will be added to that candidate’s count, and will help them reach 270 electors. Why 270? Well, half of 538 (the total number of electors in the country) is 269, a number both candidates can tie at, so the candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win. However, if they do tie at 269, the House of Representatives decides who wins.  

Another factor that makes the Electoral College even more complicated to grasp is that not all states are like California, or what’s called “winner take all” states: states that give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state. There are only two states- Maine (4 electoral votes) and Nebraska (5 electoral votes) who, instead of being “winner take all” states, give two votes to the states winner, and then one vote each to the candidate who won each congressional district within the state. For example, say that the republican candidate wins Maine, but there is one area in the state that was overwhelmingly democratic. 3 votes would go to the Republican candidate, two for winning the state and one for winning a district, and 1 would go to the democratic candidate for the democratic district they won.The Electoral College meeting, which I had mentioned earlier, took place on December 14th, 2020 (and happens around the time of every election). The meeting comes after the results of the general election have been shown and certified, and essentially determines, officially, who becomes president. All 538 electors meet in their own states and cast their votes. They all have to vote for the democratic or republican candidate depending on if their state went red or blue (except for the electors in Maine and Nebraska). The results of that meeting determine who is sworn in on Inauguration Day, the final step of the election process until four years later, when we have to do it all over again.