Five times in American history, and twice in the last 20 years, the U.S. presidential election was not won by the person with the most votes. It was won by the person with the most votes in the right places. This is the Electoral College. But what is it, and how did this unique voting system end up the way Americans choose a president?
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How does it work?
It may be hard to understand at first, but when casting a ballot for president in November, you won't just be voting for one person. You'll be voting for the electors that will represent your state in voting for those candidates.
Each political party chooses the electors before the election. Whichever candidate wins that state, that party's electors will represent the state in the Electoral College.
The number of each state's electors is based on the number of members it has in the House of Representatives and the Senate, per Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. Every state has two senators, so the x-factor is how many representatives they have -- a number based on its population. California, the most populous state, has 53 representatives. Combine that with two senators, and it has 55 electoral votes. This is one reason why the Census, taken every 10 years, is vital -- it helps determine how many seats in the House each state gets.
There are 535 members of Congress, but there are 538 electoral votes. Those extra three are for Washington, DC. Even though the District of Columbia does not have voting representation in Congress, it does get three electoral votes. An interesting fact: D.C. is more populous than Vermont or Wyoming.
What do the electors do?
The electors meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. In 2020, it will be on December 14. That's when they will cast their votes for president based on the outcomes in their states. Ultimately, it is a formality.
What if there are election disputes? States must resolve these by December 8 regarding the presidential election. In 2020, those disputes may be numerous due to expected court challenges on both sides.
There have been rare cases when some of these electors have gone rogue and decided to ignore their state's results and vote for the other candidate. The Supreme Court ruled in June that states have the right to punish or remove these so-called "faithless electors" if they don't follow the will of their state's voters.
While most states are expected to give all their electoral votes to only one candidate, Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions.
The state winner receives two electoral votes while the winner of each congressional district receives one. This allows both states to give electoral votes to more than one candidate.
How many electoral votes are needed to win?
A simple majority of electoral votes are needed to win: 270. What happens in the popular vote doesn't matter.
There is a slim chance the electoral college could end in a 269-269 tie. There is a smaller chance a third-party candidate could win one state and prevent both the Democrat and Republican from reaching 270.
If no candidate reaches 270, the presidency would be decided by the House members sworn-in the following January. Each state's House delegation would have one combined vote (Washington, D.C. doesn't vote here). If a majority of states go to one candidate, that candidate will be president. The advantage goes to the party who has a party majority in at least 26 states -- a number that can change since all House seats are up for re-election every two years.
If the House ends up in a tie, one state would have to switch to put someone over the top. Suppose it's still tied on Inauguration Day. In that case, the vice-president-elect will become the acting president until the House breaks the tie.
The vice president would be decided by a simple majority vote in the Senate.
The House has decided only two elections. Thomas Jefferson defeated Aaron Burr in 1800 (fans of the Broadway play "Hamilton" know this well). John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson was the other in 1824.
Five times a candidate has won the popular vote but lost the election.
- 1824: Andrew Jackson lost the election to John Quincy Adams. Jackson had about 45,000 more votes.
- 1876: Samuel Tilden lost to Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden had about 265,000 more votes out of 8 million cast.
- 1888: Grover Cleveland lost Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland had about 100,000 more votes out of 11 million cast.
- 2000: Al Gore lost to George W. Bush. Gore had about 550,000 more votes out of about 104 million cast.
- 2016: Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. Clinton had 2.8 million more votes out of about 135 million cast.
How did we get this system?
The National Archives says the Electoral College was a compromise between founders who wanted Congress to choose the president and those who wished for the people to do it. There were concerns on one side that allowing congress members to choose would open the door to corruption. On the other side, the concern was that people living a significant distance away wouldn't be fully educated on the candidates.
The Electoral College is what they landed on. By the way, you will find the term "electors" in the Constitution, but not "Electoral College."
If you think this isn't a perfect system, neither did the people who came up with it.
"It wasn't like the Founders said, 'Hey, what a great idea! This is the preferred way to select the chief executive, period,'" said George Edwards III, an emeritus political science professor at Texas A&M University, according to History.com. "They were tired, impatient, frustrated. They cobbled together this plan because they couldn't agree on anything else."
Slavery's role in the Electoral College
In the infancy of the United States, the states were fighting over how to divide representation fairly. States with smaller populations, mainly in the north, wanted an equal number. States with larger populations, mostly in the south, wanted to have more representation.
The catch was that 40 percent of the southern population was made up of slaves. The southern states wanted each slave counted as one person. Northern states argued slaves were property and did not need representation.
That led to the 3/5 compromise. Slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person when determining the number of representatives in the House. Subsequently, it determined how many electors a state would get.
Will the U.S. ever switch to a popular vote system?
That will probably take a Constitutional amendment. The National Archives says there have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject.
An amendment is not easy in today's partisan politics. Two-thirds of the House and 2/3 of the Senate must pass the amendment, then 3/4 of states must ratify it. Or 2/3 of state legislatures can bypass Congress by calling a constitutional convention and 3/4 quarters of all the states must ratify it. It does not require the president's approval.
In recent years, an effort was launched to get states to commit to giving their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. So far, 16 states with a total of 196 electoral votes at their disposal are on board. But the organizers have said they will not commit to it until they get enough states to equal 270 electoral votes. Such a plan would likely face legal challenges if enacted.