When voters head to the polls on Election Day to select the next president, they're not actually voting for any one person. Instead, they're throwing their support behind a group of "electors" who belong to a strange institution called the Electoral College. And it's this mysterious group of 538 members that directly casts the actual votes to determine who the next president will be.
Don't believe me? Check out Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution. Says it right there. Honest.
What is the Electoral College?
During presidential elections, state political parties select a group of "electors." These are usually committed party activists who have pledged to support their party's presidential candidate should he or she win the state's popular vote.
How many electors does each state get?
It's based on a simple equation: each state's total number of congressional representatives plus its two senators. Every state (and Washington, D.C.) is guaranteed at least three electoral votes. A sparsely populated state like North Dakota - which has two senators but only one congressional representative - gets just three electoral votes.
On the other end of the spectrum is crowded California, which gets 55 electoral votes (equal to its 53 congressional representatives and two senators).
Interestingly -- and controversially -- the more than four million people living in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam get no electors. And although most residents of these territories are citizens and can participate in their party's presidential primaries, they have no influence in the general election.
How does a presidential candidate win electors?
The presidential election is a grueling state-by-state battle, and in almost every one of those states, it's a winner-take-all scenario. That means the candidate who receives the most popular votes -- the plurality -- in each state, gets all that state's Republican or Democratic electors.
That's bad news for the other candidates in the race: even if they lose the popular vote by a single votes, they walk away from that state empty-handed.
And that's why California and other very populous states like New York, Texas, and Florida are political jackpots: they have so many delicious electors for the taking.
As if this wasn't complicated enough, there are actually two states that follow different rules. Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system, in which two electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the remaining electors are decided by popular vote within each congressional district.
Why is 270 the magic number to win the race?
There are 538 electors nationwide, and to win the presidency, a candidate needs just over half - or 270 of them. So, if you win a state like California (even if you win it by a single measly vote), you've just secured about 20 percent of the votes you need to be sitting pretty in the White House come January.
Conversely, presidential candidates on the campaign trail generally don't spend too much time in relatively underpopulated states like the Dakotas, where electors are scarce. You also probably won't find them campaigning too much in big but generally politically predictable states like Democratic-leaning California or Republican-leaning Texas. It's the big swing states (a.k.a. the battleground states) - like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia - where they'll likely be spending most of their time as the election nears. These are the states that are still up for grabs and chock full of electors; the one's that usually decide the election.
270 To Win provides good interactive maps allowing users to simulate different outcomes. It also shows state-by-state breakdowns and results from previous presidential elections.
And what if neither candidate gets to 270 electoral votes?
The chances of this happening are incredibly slim, but if it did, the House of Representatives would elect the next president from a pool of the three candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each state delegation has one vote. The Senate would then elect the vice president, with each Senator casting a vote. This has only happened once: in the 1824 presidential election, Andrew Jackson won the most popular votes and led the pack in electoral votes. But because it was a competitive race among four candidates, Jackson fell short of winning the requisite electoral majority. Congress decided the outcome, and ultimately elected Jackson's rival John Quincy Adams.
When do electors cast their official votes?
Oddly, it's not until about a month after Election Day. On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December (stay with me here), each state's electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their votes -- one for president and one for vice president. This event never really gets a whole lot of attention because everyone already knows that those electors are almost certainly going to vote for the candidate in their own party. The results are announced the first week in January and the president is sworn in two weeks later.
Technically, electors can change their minds, but it's only happened a handful of times (these electors are labeled "faithless").
This is really confusing! How about a real example?
Sure. Let's look back at the historic 2008 election when Democrat Barack Obama handily defeated Republican John McCain. First off, in terms of electoral votes, Obama pretty much killed it - he ended up with more twice what John McCain had: 365 compared to 173.
But Obama won the election by less than 10 million popular votes. Why? Because he was able to squeak out wins in the big critical swing states (namely Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida), amassing all of those electoral votes.
What happened in Florida is actually a great example of just how peculiar our electoral system can be:
The Sunshine State is the quintessential mother-lode swing state; always unpredictable and worth a big chunk of electoral votes. In 2008, Obama won it by a margin of less than three percent (he got about 51 percent to McCain's 48 percent). We're talking about a victory of less than 300,000 votes. But because of Florida's winner-take-all rule, Obama's slim victory secured him all 27 of the state's electoral votes (leaving McCain with squat). So, depending on how you look at it, you could technically argue that the votes cast by the more than 4 million Floridians who voted for McCain didn't really end up counting for much at all.
Can a candidate win the presidency without winning the popular vote?
Indeed! This has actually occurred five different times: in 1876 and 1888, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, respectively, won the White House even though they lost the popular vote (but won the electoral vote). And then there was that strange 1824 election, decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, which handed the presidency to John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson.
And then there was the infamous 2000 election, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, in which Al Gore won more popular votes than George W. Bush, but came up short on electoral votes (following a controversial Florida recount). Guess who then became a staunch advocate for getting rid of the Electoral College?
Finally (but probably not the last) was the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton famously received nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump. But guess who won the presidency?
Why did the Founding Fathers come up with such a zany system?
Two main reasons:
a) They wanted to steer clear of the British parliamentary model, in which the chief executive (prime minister) is chosen by elected representatives of the majority party. The founders thought that it was more democratic to appoint electors from each state than to have a system in which the president was elected by Congress.