Plenty of people don’t understand how the United States actually elects its President, especially when it comes to something called the ‘Electoral College.’

Put in place by the Founding Fathers of the United States to help control the possibility of a power-hungry leader manipulating the people (no comment from me here!) the Electoral College meets every four years – whenever there’s an election – and is ultimately responsible for electing the president.

Where it gets confusing to many people is that during this process, the candidate who receives the most total votes nationwide doesn’t necessarily win the election.

This has occurred five times in U.S. history: three times in the 19th century and also in 2000 (George W. Bush and Al Gore) and 2016 (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton).

How does this happen? It’s a little bit tricky to explain, but I’ll try to break it down for you.

It starts with Congress

The United States Congress is split into the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Each of the 50 US states has 2 senators and any number of representatives, which are based on a state’s population.

For example, California, with a population of 39 million, gets 53 representatives.

Wyoming, with a population of 580,000 gets one.


Those numbers above are important because they help make up the 538 electoral voters who form the Electoral College.

Each state is given one elector for every senator and representative it has.

So using the example from above, California would have 55 electors (based on 2 senators + 53 representatives).

Wyoming would have three electors (base on 2 senators + 1 representative).

By the way, Washington DC – which isn’t a state – does get three electors.

Voting For Electors Not Presidents

When you vote in your state, you are technically voting for these electors who will take your vote to the Electoral College.

Nearly all states are winner-take-all states, meaning a candidate who wins that state wins all the electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine do it a little differently, but let’s not worry about that.

There are 538 electoral votes up for grabs and a candidate needs 270 to be elected president.

So on Election Day, it’s more important to watch the electoral votes than the popular votes.

If neither candidate reaches that number, then the Senate chooses the vice president and the House of Representatives picks the president. But the House votes are only one per state, so all states have equal status.

The Final Numbers

In December, the electors cast their votes. It’s largely ceremonial since theoretically, they should follow their state’s vote. So if Biden wins California, all 55 electors are expected to vote for Biden.

In the past, some so-called ‘Faithless Electors’ have voted for a different candidate than the one who was victorious, but there are now legal options in place to prevent that from happening.

The votes are counted in a special session of Congress and the president is officially elected and later inaugurated in January.

Lessons from 2016

You can see on the map below the Elector numbers for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Trump is red, Clinton blue. What stands out more than anything is the solid block of red in the Midwest and the South, where Trump dominated.

Clinton won some big states – California (55), New York (29), Illinois (20) – but Trump won Texas (38) and Florida (29) and enough other states to win the election, despite losing the popular vote.

Biden is hoping to make this irrelevant by taking back states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina, those so-called ‘Swing States’.


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