US Election 2020: The electoral college explained

Americans will take to the voting booths in just over a week on November 3 to elect their next President - but will their votes count?

The election system in the United States differs from countries around the world as Presidents aren't elected as a result of winning the majority of the votes (also known as the popular vote).

The popular vote elects members of congress, mayors, governors, state legislators, but US Presidents are elected based on the electoral college system.

For the majority of elections, the winner of the electoral college vote also wins the popular vote, with only five exceptions.

One of which was the 2016 election where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Donald Trump won the electoral college and was elected in a shock win.

How does the electoral college voting system work?

When Americans cast their votes for the next US President, they are actually voting for an 'elector' who promises to vote for a particular candidate.

  • 1 elector = 1 electoral college vote.

Each of the country's states is given a specific number of electors which is based on their number of congressional districts, based on a state's population.

California has the most electors (55) followed by Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), and Pennsylvania (20). All states have a minimum of three electors.

There are 538 electoral votes in total and the candidates need a majority of 270 to win.

Americans will take to the voting booths on November 3.
Americans will take to the voting booths on November 3. Photo credit: Getty

Generally, each US state awards all of their electoral college votes to the candidate who won the most popular votes in that state.

For example, if Trump won 51 percent of the vote in Texas and the Democrats won 40 percent of the vote, Trump would be awarded all of the state's 38 electoral college votes.

The winner-takes-all system leads to an intense focus on battleground states where voters can lean either way, but where there are large amounts of electoral votes to be won.

Winning battleground states can significantly increase the candidate's chance of winning the Presidency.

Only two states, Maine and Nebraska, divide up their electoral college votes based on the proportion of popular votes each candidate receives.

For example, if 30 percent of Maine voters cast their votes for the Republicans and 60 percent vote for the Democrats, the state's three electorate votes will be divided up: one Republican - two Democrats. 

What happens if no candidate gets a majority?

If no candidate gains the majority of 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives will then vote to elect the next President.

The Senate then elects the Vice President from the two candidates with the most votes.

This has only happened once, in 1824, when four candidates split the electoral vote, denying any one of them the majority.

The House of Representatives then elected John Quincy Adams as President.

But with only two parties currently dominating US politics, the Democrats and Republicans, this is unlikely to happen in the 2020 election.

John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States of America and the son of John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States.
John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States of America and the son of John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States. Photo credit: Getty

History of the electoral college

Of the 58 presidential elections in the United States, 53 of the winners won both the electoral college and the popular vote and became President.

However, in five elections the winner of the electoral college lost the popular vote, according to History TV.

The five Presidents to be elected despite losing the popular vote were:

  1. John Quincy Adams (1824)
  2. Rutherford B. Hayes (1876)
  3. Benjamin Harrison (1888)
  4. George W. Bush (2000)
  5. Donald Trump (2016)

The Guardian reported in 2000, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by over half a million votes more than George W Bush.

However, Bush became President after winning the state of Florida by 537 popular votes, and therefore took home all 29 electorate votes.

In the 2016 election, Clinton won the popular vote by millions of votes, however, Trump took out the electoral college with 306 votes.

The key was Trump won the battleground states with more electoral votes, including: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina.

Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton. Photo credit: Getty

Abolishing the electoral system

Some politicians have argued that abolishing the Electoral College system would allow the country to move closer to a "one person, one vote" system where every vote counts, TIME reported.

Currently in most states, if you vote with the minority, your vote is erased by the electoral college's winner-takes-all system.

People have also argued that the "one person, one vote" system would increase voter participation, which is notoriously low in the US.

If the system was to be changed it would take a constitutional amendment as the Electoral College process is in the US Constitution. 

Americans vote for the candidate they want to represent them as President, not a political party.
Americans vote for the candidate they want to represent them as President, not a political party. Photo credit: Getty

Professor George Edwards III, at Texas A&M University, told The Guardian: "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?" he said.

“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.”

How many electoral votes each state gets

Total electoral votes:  538.  Majority needed to elect:  270

  • Alabama - 9 votes
  • Alaska - 3 votes
  • Arizona - 11 votes
  • Arkansas - 6 votes
  • California - 55 votes
  • Colorado - 9 votes
  • Connecticut - 7 votes
  • Delaware - 3 votes
  • District of Columbia - 3 votes
  • Florida - 29 votes
  • Georgia - 16 votes
  • Hawaii - 4 votes
  • Idaho - 4 votes
  • Illinois - 20 votes
  • Indiana - 11 votes
  • Iowa - 6 votes
  • Kansas - 6 votes
  • Kentucky - 8 votes
  • Louisiana - 8 votes
  • Maine - 4 votes
  • Maryland - 10 votes
  • Massachusetts - 11 votes
  • Michigan - 16 votes
  • Minnesota - 10 votes
  • Mississippi - 6 votes
  • Missouri - 10 votes
  • Montana - 3 votes
  • Nebraska - 5 votes
  • Nevada - 6 votes
  • New Hampshire - 4 votes
  • New Jersey - 14 votes
  • New Mexico - 5 votes
  • New York - 29 votes
  • North Carolina - 15 votes
  • North Dakota - 3 votes
  • Ohio - 18 votes
  • Oklahoma - 7 votes
  • Oregon - 7 votes
  • Pennsylvania - 20 votes
  • Rhode Island - 4 votes
  • South Carolina - 9 votes
  • South Dakota - 3 votes
  • Tennessee - 11 votes
  • Texas - 38 votes
  • Utah - 6 votes
  • Vermont - 3 votes
  • Virginia - 13 votes
  • Washington - 12 votes
  • West Virginia - 5 votes
  • Wisconsin - 10 votes
  • Wyoming - 3 votes

With the presidential debates out of the way, the US election is set to take place next week on November 3. 

Newshub has compiled a comprehensive article on what you need to know which can be seen here.