2020, what a year. Many people may be surprised to learn that the vote they cast today does not directly determine the outcome of the election in their state. Enter the Electoral College.
In the United States, under Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the Electoral College is formed every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president and vice president of the United States. Each state selects its own electors. The number of electors in each state is equal to the sum of the state's membership in the Senate and House of Representatives. These electors are selected in a manner spelled out by each state and cannot hold a federal office.
Currently, there are 100 senators and 435 state representatives, and added to the 3 representatives for Washington D.C. by the ratification of the Twenty-third Amendment to the constitution in 1961, the total number of electorates is currently 538. This is where we get the magical number of 270. There are currently 538 electors, and an absolute majority of electoral votes, 270 or more, is required to win the election.
Following the national presidential election held the first Tuesday after November 1st, November 3rd this year, each state counts its popular votes according to its laws to select the electors.
In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner of the statewide vote receives all of that state's electors; in Maine and Nebraska, two electors are assigned in this manner and the remaining electors are allocated based on the majority of votes in each congressional district.
In the 2016 presidential election. The total number of votes cast was 538, of which Donald Trump received 304 votes, Hillary Clinton received 227, Colin Powell received 3, Bernie Sanders received 1, John Kasich received 1, Ron Paul received 1 and Faith Spotted Eagle received 1. The electors do not meet as a body to vote, but rather vote separately in their individual jurisdictions. States generally require electors to pledge to vote for that state's winner; to avoid faithless electors, most states have adopted various laws to enforce the electors’ pledge, but as you can see above, electors can deviate from their pledge on occasion.
The electors of each state meet in their respective state capital on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December (December 14th this election) to cast their votes.
The results are counted by Congress, where they are tabulated in the first week of January before a joint meeting of the Senate and House of Representatives, presided over by the vice president, as president of the Senate. Should a majority of votes not be cast for a candidate, the House turns itself into a presidential election session, where one vote is assigned to each of the fifty states. Similarly, the Senate is responsible for electing the vice president, with each senator having one vote. The elected president and vice president are inaugurated on January 20.
Why is the Electoral College needed?
So why don’t we just use a popular vote to determine who is elected to run the executive branch? The answer is simple if you look at a map and pull up the population of our largest cities. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (July 1, 2019), the top 20 clusters of the population are:
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA Metro Area - 19,216,182
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA Metro Area - 13,214,799
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI Metro Area - 9,458,539
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX Metro Area - 7,573,136
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX Metro Area - 7,066,141
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metro Area - 6,280,487
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL Metro Area - 6,166,488
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD Metro Area - 6,102,434
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, GA Metro Area - 6,020,364
Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler, AZ Metro Area - 4,948,203
Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH Metro Area - 4,873,019
San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA Metro Area - 4,731,803
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA Metro Area - 4,650,631
Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI Metro Area - 4,319,629
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA Metro Area - 3,979,845
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI Metro Area - 3,640,043
San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, CA Metro Area - 3,338,330
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL Metro Area - 3,194,831
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO Metro Area - 2,967,239
St. Louis, MO-IL Metro Area - 2,803,228
Without the Electoral College, these 20 population clusters (approx. 38% of the U.S. population) would largely decide every presidential election. There would be no incentive for any candidate to build a coalition in much of the country. Most of the country would no longer be relevant in the process. By focusing their efforts in just 20 areas, a candidate could sway the election. There would be little need to address the concerns of farmers in the Midwest or manufacturers in the Rust Belt. Put simply, eliminating the Electoral College would relegate most of the country irrelevant in the process of selecting a president.