Electoral college explained: A simple guide to how the US elections work

·4-min read
Joe Biden and Donald Trump are duking it out for an Electoral College victory (REUTERS)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump are duking it out for an Electoral College victory (REUTERS)

With the 2020 election just around the corner, the Democrats are increasingly confident they can get Joe Biden to the White House while winning the Senate and holding the House of Representatives.

And if they manage to do that, they may be able to achieve what’s become a major goal: abolishing the Electoral College. This is the institution that gave Donald Trump the presidency in 2016, even though Hillary Clinton beat him by nearly 3 million votes.

Assuming Joe Biden manages to win it, this could be the college’s last election. Here’s what you need to know about the electoral college, the calls for its elimination, and why it exists in the first place.

What is the electoral college, and how does it work?

When voters cast their ballots on election day in America, they’re technically not voting directly for the candidates themselves. Instead, under the electoral college, they are essentially casting a ballot for their preferred candidate’s electors.

These electors are often party loyalists, or the individuals close to the campaigns. In all but two states, the winner of the popular vote receives all of that state’s electoral college votes — no matter the margin of victory.

All told, there are 538 electors in the electoral college: one for each member of the House of Representatives, two per senator, and three allocated to the District of Columbia through the 22nd Amendment.

So, after voters cast their ballots (and after governors of the states certify the tallies and electoral lists), the electors then meet in December in their respective states. At that point, they then officially vote for president and vice president. Members of the House and Senate then meet in January to take an official tally of those votes.

Why does the US do it this way?

The electoral college is a compromise solution dating back to the origins of the country, when there was considerable concern that urban centres would dominate elections to the detriment of less populated areas.

Because the number of electors a state has is tied to its number of representatives in the House, more populous states have an edge because they wield more by virtue of having greater representation. In order to offset that, the founders of the country determined that each state would also receive one elector per senator — of which each state has two, regardless of its size — thereby giving less populous states a boost.

The procedure is detailed in the 12th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Who benefits?

In the two most recent elections in which candidates lost the popular vote but won the election anyway, the candidates were Republicans. George W. Bush won in 2000, while Donald Trump won in 2016.

Generally speaking, republican support is found in rural areas of the country, while democrats find their support in urban centres.

If you look at a map of nearly any election, the vast majority of the country will be painted red for republicans no matter the vote. That’s because republicans dominate in sparsely populated areas of the US in the centre of the country; meanwhile, urbanised areas that usually vote Democratic are concentrated on coasts and in relatively few states.

The contest in most elections, then, is about encroaching on just enough of the other side’s territory in a handful of key areas within a few swing states.

Republicans have long fought a strong game in the more affluent suburbs of major cities, giving them an edge in swing states like Pennsylvania where the Democratic vote is largely concentrated in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Conversely, the Democrats are increasingly hopeful of finally winning Arizona for the first time since 1996 thanks in large part to the changing demographics and politics of its two largest cities, Phoenix and Tucson.

How can it be changed?

Changing the system would require a constitutional amendment, which would is a drawn out process that requires an overwhelming amount of support across the country. In some states, though, governors have taken action and are pushing for laws that would award all of their electors to whoever won the popular vote, no matter what the result was in their state.

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