When Americans vote Tuesday, they will pick their preferred candidate for president, but they aren’t directly electing that person.
Huh? How does that work?
In the U.S., they have what’s called the electoral college, and it’s the members of the electoral college who technically elect the president.
They do so based on the popular vote results in each state.
What is the electoral college?
The electoral college has 538 electors.
Every state, plus the District of Columbia, has an allotted number of electors. The number is determined by how many people each state has in the House of Representatives, plus the two senators that every state has in the U.S. Senate.
The number of representatives in the House of Representatives is determined by population. (D.C. is not a state, but gets three electoral college votes).
A candidate wins the election by taking 270 or more electoral college votes.
Most states (except for Nebraska and Maine) use a winner-take-all system. That means whichever candidate wins the popular vote in the state gets all of that state’s electoral college votes. (Maine and Nebraska use a proportional representation system to split up the votes).
What does this mean?
This means that winning the White House is a mathematical exercise. The candidates have to strategize which states they can conceivably win, look at how many votes those states have and figure out how to get to a total of 270.
Some states are reliably blue (Democrat), like California, which has the biggest number of electoral college votes (55).
Some states are reliably red (Republican), like Texas (38 votes).
Then there are the swing states, which could go either way, and that’s why you see candidates making repeat visits to places such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In the 2016 election, South Carolina is considered a battleground state, and its nine electoral college votes are highly sought from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Who gets to be in the electoral college?
Each presidential candidate has a “slate” of potential electors. They are generally chosen by the candidate’s political party in each state and every state has their own process for doing that. They tend to be elected state representatives, party leaders and activists.
On election day, when a voter makes their choice for president, they are actually voting for that person’s electors. Their names may or may not be on the ballot below the name of the presidential candidate (it depends on the rules in the state).
Whoever wins the state, their entire slate of electors are then appointed as the official state electors. (Except in Maine and Nebraska, which, again, like to do things differently).
So what happens after Nov. 8?
Election day, part two, will be held on Dec. 19. That’s when the electors meet in their respective states and vote for president and vice-president, on separate ballots.
The electors are expected to vote for the winner of their state, but they don’t have to — so says the Constitution.
Individual states have passed various rules and laws to prevent electors from going rogue — electors who go against their pledges are called “faithless” — but they are hardly necessary. Remember, the electors are mostly long-time party loyalists. If they become faithless, they may be disqualified as an elector or face a fine. (The states that do have laws against a rogue vote have never applied them).
After the electors cast their ballots, they are sent to Washington, D.C.
The next date of note in this election season is Jan. 6. That’s when the ballots are counted in Congress and the results announced: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a president!
The president-elect then has to wait until Jan. 20 to take the Oath of Office in front of thousands of people on Capitol Hill — and later, don a tuxedo or ball gown for the parties.
Hang on! What if no one gets to the 270 magic number?
If no single candidate achieves a majority of the electoral college votes, then the House of Representatives elects the president, choosing from the three candidates who got the most electoral college votes.
Each state delegation gets one vote. The Senate would elect the vice-president through each senator casting one vote for either of the top two candidates.
Unless there is a strong third-party candidate, it’s unlikely that the 270 votes would not be achieved.
It’s only happened once before that the House of Representatives chose the president. If this ever comes up at a pub trivia night, the answer is: 1824, when Congress elected John Quincy Adams.
Why on earth does the U.S. elect its president this way?
Americans have the Founding Fathers to thank for this system. They wrote it into the Constitution. It’s meant to be a compromise between Congress electing a president and a popular vote by eligible citizens.
To change it would require a constitutional amendment, which is a pretty big deal, and those who have tried have failed.
Opponents of the electoral college have multiple complaints, but one of the biggest is that it reinforces the two-party system and makes it nearly impossible for a third-party candidate to win.
Some Americans like that just fine, and want to preserve the two-party system. They also argue that the electoral college maintains a solid system of federalism.
- The CBC