The Real Deciders of the Election: Electoral College

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What is it?

The Electoral College was created by the same group of old guys who wrote the United States Constitution more than two centuries ago. At the time, some politicians worried the average voter didn’t know enough about politics to make a wise decision about his future president, while other politicians argued that it was undemocratic to let Congress choose the president. The Electoral College system was invented as a compromise.

How does it work?

When voters cast their ballots in a presidential election, they are actually voting for electors pledged to a particular candidate. Each state is allocated as many electors as it has Representatives and Senators in the U.S. Congress. Since the most populous states have the most seats in the House of Representatives, they also have the most electors, and therefore greater sway in the presidential election. California, for example, has 55 electors, while sparsely populated Alaska has only 3. Under the Twenty-Third Amendment, Washington, D.C. is allocated as many electors as it would have if it were a state, but no more electors than the least populous state. Since Wyoming, the least populous state, has three electors, D.C. cannot have more than three electors.

In every state except Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who wins the most votes gets all of that state’s electors. This is known as a “winner-take-all” system.

Both Maine and Nebraska allocate their electors by a district system. Maine has four electoral votes; two electors are selected on the basis of the statewide vote and the remaining two are selected according to the outcome of the vote in each of Maine's two Congressional districts. Nebraska's five electoral votes are distributed in the same manner: two based on the statewide vote, and three based on the results in Congressional districts.

How are electors decided?

Candidates for electors are nominated by their state political parties in the months prior to Election Day. Per the Constitution, delegates to each state have the authority for nominating and choosing its electors. In some states, the electors are nominated in primaries, the same way that other candidates are nominated. Other states, such as Oklahoma and Virginia nominate electors in party conventions.

Doing the “electoral math”

There are a total of 538 electors, and 270 are needed to win the presidency. Usually, presidential campaigns determine which states they are likely to win and then which they must win to achieve the 270 electoral vote requirement. Generally, that leads the campaigns to concentrate on so-called “swing states” – those states where voters tend to be equally divided between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania are three relatively big states that can “swing” either way, and may have the final say on who gets to be president if the race is very close. That’s why both Obama and McCain have spent so much of their campaign dollars and time advertising on TV and shaking hands with voters in these states.

Can the electoral vote contradict the popular vote?

The short answer is yes, as we saw in the 2000 election with George W. Bush and Al Gore, but this happens very rarely. One worrisome feature of the process occurs when no candidates wins a majority of the electoral votes, which may happen when a viable third-party candidate enters the race.

In this event, the election is decided by the House of Representatives where the delegations from each state have one vote each. The candidate with the most votes would be declared the winner.

How many electoral votes does each state have?

State

Electoral Votes

Alaska

3

Delaware

3

Montana

3

North Dakota

3

South Dakota

3

Vermont

3

Washington, D.C.

3

Wyoming

3

Hawaii

4

Idaho

4

Maine

4

New Hampshire

4

Rhode Island

4

Nebraska

5

New Mexico

5

West Virginia

5

Arkansas

6

Iowa

6

Kansas

6

Mississippi

6

Nevada

6

Utah

6

Connecticut

7

Oklahoma

7

Oregon

7

Kentucky

8

Louisiana

8

Alabama

9

Colorado

9

South Carolina

9

Maryland

10

Minnesota

10

Missouri

10

Wisconsin

10

Arizona

11

Tennessee

11

Indiana

11

Massachusetts

11

Washington

12

Virginia

13

New Jersey

14

North Carolina

15

Georgia

16

Michigan

16

Ohio

18

Illinois

20

Pennsylvania

20

Florida

29

New York

29

Texas

38

California

55