Here’s How US Presidents Get Elected (It’s Not By Winning The Most Votes)

If Americans could vote on their presidential electoral system, polls suggest they’d dump it.

In the meantime, if all goes according to plan, 538 “electors” will yet again convene at locations around the country in December – several weeks after election day on 3 November – to officially select the next person to take the presidential oath.

Winner-takes all system: excellent but far from perfect

The Electoral College is a mostly winner-take-all system that delivers a set number of electoral votes per state to the winner of the popular vote there. That number is based on a state’s headcount in Congress – the minimum is three (as in Alaska and Wyoming, for example), and the maximum is 55 (California). There are 538 in total, and 270 are needed to win.

The system was devised when voting was limited to white men who owned property, amid a fear of direct democracy. “If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent,” was how Alexander Hamilton described it. Still, it remains both a mystery to many and a target of criticism – not least because candidates can win the most total votes but still lose an election if they don’t win enough in the right states.

The winner of the popular vote has lost the election five times, including twice since the year 2000.

Candidates are compelled by the system to neglect the parts of the country where most people live. Each major political party already has an arsenal of (mostly) dependable electoral votes in the most populous states – Democrats in California, for example, and Republicans in Texas – so why campaign there if all one can do is lose by slightly less while still coming away with no electoral votes? Better to focus on a place like Ohio, which has evenly split its support between each party’s candidates in the past six elections, and has 18 electoral votes to add to an existing arsenal and nudge a winner over the finish line.

Image: World Economic Forum

Maine and Nebraska are unique in that each can split their electoral votes, and while it’s not a state, Washington, D.C. contributes three.

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Challenged but not overturned

Despite its quirks, the Electoral College system has weathered serious challenges. After the 1968 election, the Celler-Bayh Amendment proposed replacing it with a system based on the popular vote. The measure had broad support but died amid concerns about encouraging spoiler candidates and eroding the country’s federalist system.

The Electoral College can make a big difference for residents of less-populous states. That’s because the minimum of three electoral votes in even the least-inhabited state (each has at least two senators and one House member) gives each individual vote there more relative influence.

One study found that in the 2016 election, someone casting a ballot in Wyoming (current population 578,759) enjoyed a “vote weight” of 2.97, compared with 0.78 for voters in Florida (current population 21.5 million).

Everything you need to know about electors

The parties in each state have different methods for selecting electors, or the people responsible for casting its electoral votes if their party wins the popular vote there. These electoral votes are ultimately sent to Congress for confirmation. Looming over everything is the spectre of the “faithless elector” – one who ultimately refuses to cast a vote for the pledged candidate. However, the Supreme Court ruled this past July that states have the power to force electors to cast their votes as expected.

Image: World Economic Forum

Never say never

Significant change may yet be on the horizon, however. An effort to work around the Electoral College by having states accounting for at least 270 electoral votes agree to cast them for the winner of the popular vote – dubbed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact – has so far garnered commitments from 15 states and Washington, D.C.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Experts are gaming out ways the election could go wrong, especially if it’s close. This University of California, Irvine professor notes a state’s governor reports its Electoral College vote to Congress – but may be less inclined to fulfil that role as expected depending on their party. (New Yorker)
  • Joe Biden may have a fairly stable lead over Donald Trump in the polls, but you shouldn’t count Trump out yet. He has just a one in 10 chance of winning the popular vote, according to this analysis, but nearly a one in four shot of winning the election due to the Electoral College. (FiveThirtyEight)
  • Trump’s strategy appears to involve trying to peel off a sufficient number of male African American voters in the “Blue Wall” states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – whose electoral college votes put him over the top in 2016. (Brookings)
  • Some have expressed concern about Republican members of state legislatures unhappy with the popular vote result deciding to “hijack” the process by appointing their own set of electors. However, according to this analysis, even before the recent Supreme Court decision a number of factors made this unlikely. (LSE)
  • In this Q&A with the author of “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College,” he blames the desire of politicians to game the system for the long life of this deeply unpopular institution. (Christian Science Monitor)
  • Arguments in favour of the Electoral College: it provides a check on the public if it makes a bad decision, it forces candidates to campaign in rural areas, it prevents a small number of states or cities from picking the winner, and it prevents the chaos of a contested election. This analysis casts doubt on all four. (The Conversation)
  • Current demographic trends in the US mean states that voted Republican in the 2016 presidential election might gain an advantage – if the growing populations there continue to vote the same way going forward. But according to this analysis, that may not be the case. (Brookings)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Civic Participation, the United States and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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Image: World Economic Forum

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