Explaining the Electoral College of the USA
On Wednesday, 9 November 2016, a day after the US presidential elections, the airwaves will be dominated by the words ‘Electoral College’. For some, how the Electoral College works is common knowledge, but for many of us, including many Americans, how the Electoral College functions remains unclear. Although the USA might be perceived to be one of the world’s true and direct democracies, the process of electing their president for four years is not as straightforward as one might think.
Every four years, on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, millions of American citizens go to vote at their local voting stations to elect the next President and Vice President of their country. The votes of each eligible voting American will be tallied and recorded, after which a winner will be declared through the Electoral College. Yet, despite this simple democratic process, the person who receives the most of the popular votes is not necessarily guaranteed to become the next President of the United States, as was the case in the 2000 election between former President George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Each state is assigned a number of electoral votes based on the population size of each state. The state with the most electoral votes is California, with 55 votes, followed by Texas, with 38 votes. The seven smallest states by population — Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming — have three electors each. This is because each of these states is entitled to one representative and two senators in Congress, each. A presidential candidate, therefore, needs 270 electoral votes to secure the White House for the next four years.
The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors who determine who becomes the next President and Vice President of the USA. The number 538 is the sum of the USA’s 435 representatives in the House of Representatives, 100 senators in the Senate, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia. In each of the 50 states, except two – namely Nebraska and Maine – the candidate who wins the majority of votes in the state, receives the state’s electoral votes. It is custom for each state legislator to give the particular state’s electoral votes to the candidate who received the popular vote, but they do not have to always do so. It is at the discretion of each state legislator to determine to who their electoral votes will be given, but the majority of states have state laws which regulate this discretion.
An interesting scenario arises when no single presidential candidate secures 270 electoral votes to win. If no one gets a majority of electoral votes, the election is tossed to the U.S. House of Representatives. The top three contenders then face off with each state casting one vote. Whoever wins a majority of states, wins the election. The process is the same for the vice presidency, except that the U.S. Senate makes that selection. If no candidate receives 270 electoral votes, this would mean hypothetically that this election could be a three-horse race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Republican nominee Donald Trump, and Utah-born independent Evan McMullin, who is leading the polls in Utah and Idaho. Yet, despite this dream seeming like a great alternative, considering how the election battle shaped up between Clinton and Trump, it remains extremely optimistic and unlikely.
The Electoral College quite rightly receives some criticism from various corners. Some argue that this system favours smaller and less populous states. Others feel that the ‘winner-takes-all’ approach hinders smaller and third parties from effectively competing in the election.
All things considered, the US presidential election and how the Electoral College will determine who leads the most powerful country in the world remains fascinating for us viewers on this side of the Atlantic pond.