Elections: the US Electoral College

It’s not the popular vote

While the popular media coverage of the US presidential elections can make it seem as if the American people are electing a new president, that’s not actually how it works. It’s not direct democracy, where the most votes determines a winner and the majority rules. Instead, there’s this thing called the Electoral College that does the final voting. How it works is easy to understand, why it exists is pretty interesting.

In the US, when you vote for a presidential candidate, you’re really voting for the candidate’s special voters, called electors, even though, in most states, the electors names don’t appear on the ballot. It’s these behind-the-scenes electors who, a few weeks after the general election, vote for president.

The Electoral College isn’t a regular organization, it only exists for presidential elections, every four years, with all new electors each time. The electors are chosen by each party, state by state. So the Republicans and the Democratics each have their electors, plus any independent candidates each have their own electors. They never meet as one group, a few weeks after the national election in November, they elected electors vote from their respective state capitals, and then they’re done.

Since the electors are chosen by the parties, they can be expected to vote for their party’s candidate, which is what generally happens. Where it gets interesting and starts to get tricky is how the electors are distributed among the 50 states.

There are 538 electors in total, representing the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia (as in, Washington, DC). Different states have different numbers of electoral votes, ranging from three electors for (Alaska, Vermont, and a couple of others) to 56 (California).

So now the question is: why doesn’t the popular vote have the same result as the Electoral College vote—how can 80,000 votes beat three million?