Who elects the US president?
When Americans cast their ballots for the US president, they are actually voting for a representative of that candidate’s party known as an elector. There are 538 electors who then vote for the president on behalf of the people in their state.
Each state is assigned a certain number of these electoral votes, based on the number of congressional districts they have, plus two additional votes representing the state’s Senate seats. Washington DC is also assigned three electoral votes, despite having no voting representation in Congress. A majority of 270 of these votes is needed to win the presidency.
The process of nominating electors varies by state and by party, but is generally done one of two ways. Ahead of the election, political parties either choose electors at their national conventions, or they are voted for by the party’s central committee.
The electoral college nearly always operates with a winner-takes-all system, in which the candidate with the highest number of votes in a state claims all of that state’s electoral votes. For example, in 2016, Trump beat Clinton in Florida by a margin of just 2.2%, but that meant he claimed all 29 of Florida’s crucial electoral votes.
Such small margins in a handful of key swing states meant that, regardless of Clinton’s national vote lead, Trump was able to clinch victory in several swing states and therefore win more electoral college votes.
Biden could face the same hurdle in November, meaning he will need to focus his attention on a handful of battleground states to win the presidency.
The unequal distribution of electoral votes
While the number of electoral votes a state is assigned somewhat reflects its population, the minimum of three votes per state means that the relative value of electoral votes varies across America.
The least populous states like North and South Dakota and the smaller states of New England are overrepresented because of the required minimum of three electoral votes. Meanwhile, the states with the most people – California, Texas and Florida – are underrepresented in the electoral college.
Wyoming has one electoral college vote for every 193,000 people, compared with California’s rate of one electoral vote per 718,000 people. This means that each electoral vote in California represents over three times as many people as one in Wyoming. These disparities are repeated across the country.
Who does it favour?
Experts have warned that, after returning two presidents that got fewer votes than their opponents since 2000, the electoral college is flawed.
In 2000, Al Gore won over half a million more votes than Bush, yet Bush became president after winning Florida by just 537 votes. In all, the US has had five presidents who lost the overall popular vote but won the election.
Professor George Edwards III, at Texas A&M University, said: “The electoral college violates the core tenet of democracy, that all votes count equally and allows the candidate finishing second to win the election. Why hold an election if we do not care who received the most votes?
“At the moment, the electoral college favours Republicans because of the way Republican votes are distributed across the country. They are more likely to occur in states that are closely divided between the parties.”
Under the winner-takes-all system, the margin of victory in a state becomes irrelevant. In 2016, Clinton’s substantial margins in states such as California and New York failed to earn her enough electoral votes, while close races in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Michigan took Trump over the 270 majority.