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The Electoral College — How It Works and Why It Matters

sumant yerramilly
Nov 7, 2016 · 5 min read

The Intro

When you vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton this year, you’re not actually voting for them. You’re actually voting for a party, which has a slate or group of “electors.”

Wait, what?

Yes. Seriously. Each state has a group of electors — people who vote for the president on behalf of that entire state. Each of the fifty states gets an elector for each of its House Representatives and Senators that state has in Congress. There are 435 representatives, split amongst the states based on their population, and 100 Senators, two per state. Washington D.C. also gets three electors despite not having any voting representatives or senators, so those taxation without representation license plates aren’t entirely true. Each elector casts a single electoral vote, so the Electoral College as a whole has 538 votes (435 representatives + 100 senators + 3 DC electors).

Whichever candidate receives a majority of these votes — at least 270 — wins the Presidency. One party is very likely to get a majority of the electoral vote given there’s usually only 2 “real” candidates on the ballot. But if it’s a 50/50 split with each candidate having 269 votes, the members of the House of Representatives choose the President. Each state’s House Representatives vote as a block on behalf of their state, with the candidate who wins a majority of states becoming President. This means every state has the same amount of influence, regardless of population, which is *very* different from how the system works without a tie. The same process is followed in the Senate to determine the Vice President. Of course, with 50 states, there could be a tie in the House, in which case the Senate’s choice for Vice President becomes the President. If there’s also a tie in the Senate, which means there would have been *three* consecutive ties, then the Speaker of the House becomes the President. All hail President Paul Ryan!

The Meat — for those of you with more time (and a visual!)

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So the next obvious question is “Who elects the electors?”

Usually, each party selects their own set of electors (who can’t be the Reps or Senators), and the winning party on election day gets to use their electors.

Well how do we make sure the electors don’t all go off and vote for Ron Paul?

In every state except Nebraska and Maine, the candidate who wins the most votes in that state gets all of the electoral votes from that state. This is called a winner-take-all approach. Most states legally require electors to vote for the candidates who captured the most votes in that state. In others states, it’s just a practice or there are party rules requiring it. The full tapestry of allocation processes is pretty diverse.

Why are some states more important than others?

The winner-take-all system is why certain states matter more than others. California has large liberal cities and a conservative Central Valley. Even though it boasts 55 electoral votes, more than 10% of the total, the liberal cities consistently outweigh the valley and so California goes blue and doesn’t really matter for campaigning. Fundraising, however, is an entirely different story. New Hampshire is a swing state, but with only 4 electoral votes, it’s not gonna get as much love as the electoral vote-rich swing states. Florida, for example, has 29 electoral votes and can’t figure itself out, making it the belle of the ball every election (hello Bush v. Gore). Pennsylvania isn’t far behind with 20 electoral votes and a more ideological balance between its liberal urban centers (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) and the more conservative rural expanse. And Ohio, which carries 18 electoral votes, is always hotly contested, picking the winner in 28 out of 30 presidential contests since 1896.

I don’t like this system. How do we change it?

Good luck with that Arthur. The Electoral College derives its authority from the 12th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which lays out the process, and draws further support from an intricate and interdependent framework of state laws and party rules. It’s not going anywhere for a while.

Okay fine. But what about Nebraska and Maine?

Really? You care about those states? Nah, you probably didn’t ask yourself that question… because yea, it’s Nebraska and Maine. But we’ll explain it anyway for those of you who need to know everything, and also because Nebraska is actually potentially going blue. Nebraska and Maine use proportional representation, which means the Presidential candidate who earns the most votes automatically receives two electoral votes, and the rest are divided up by Congressional district. Both states are fairly sparsely populated, with Maine having two districts and Nebraska having a grand total of three. With their two Senators, that’s a total of four votes for Maine and five votes for Nebraska.

Other Bits of Trivia

The electors don’t actually vote until the Monday after second Wednesday of December. The results are then announced by the Senate President to Congress on January 6th. It took me a few times to understand wtf that means, but it comes from 1800s America so…


If we just used a popular vote across the U.S., where the candidate winning a majority of votes from all the states combined would be the winner, four elections would have gone differently: John Quincy Adams would have lost to Andrew Jackson in 1824; Rutherford Hayes would have lost to Samuel tilden in 1876; Benjamin Harrison would have lost to Grover Cleveland in 1888; and <drumroll please> George W. Bush would have lost to Al Gore in 2000. So maybe one of those would have mattered.

Some of our sources:




Federal Archives

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sumant yerramilly

Written by

Founder of @syncapart. @TechStars Alum, and all things #Illini & #nba


Delivering bite-sized summaries of currently relevant topics in fields such as science, economics, entrepreneurship, technology, and politics. Written with the goal of facilitating our readers having Not So Small Talk.

sumant yerramilly

Written by

Founder of @syncapart. @TechStars Alum, and all things #Illini & #nba


Delivering bite-sized summaries of currently relevant topics in fields such as science, economics, entrepreneurship, technology, and politics. Written with the goal of facilitating our readers having Not So Small Talk.

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