Script: How the Electoral College Works
Ah, Election Day, when Americans everywhere cast their ballot for the next President of the United States.
Except, not really. Americans don’t directly vote for president.
So, what’s happening on election day then? It’s a bit complicated because of something called the Electoral College.
To keep things simple for now, think of the Electoral College as a collection of the 538 votes that determine who the President of the United States will be.
Because that’s the number of Senators 100 plus the number of Representatives, 438 in Congress. Why are there 438 Representatives in Congress?
Stop asking so many question right now we’re trying to keep this simple:
These 538 votes in the Electoral College aren’t given to the citizens directly, but are instead divided among the states.
So how does the Electoral College give out the votes?
Each state, no matter how populous or not, gets three votes to start. The remaining votes are given out roughly in proportion to the population of the state. The more people the state has, the more votes it gets.
Here is a map of the United States showing the voting power each states has by making one hexagon equal to one electoral college vote for president.
Because electoral votes mostly Ã¢â‚¬â€œ though not completely Ã¢â‚¬â€œ scale with population it’s also a map of where people live with a bonus given to the smaller states to make them a bit bigger than they would otherwise be.
In early November, when citizens go to the polls they aren’t voting for president directly but they’re really telling their state how they want it to use its electoral votes.
48 of the 50 states give all their electoral college votes to the candidate who wins a majority in their state.
Take Florida, for example, which has 29 electoral college votes. If a candidate wins a majority, no matter how small that majority, he gets all the votes.
So the path to the White House is clear: win enough majorities in enough states to get more than half of the Electoral college votes and you get to sit at the big desk.
That wasn’t so complicated, you say.
Well, there were a few details left out:
The Electoral College loves states, but what about the 11 million Americans who don’t live in a state?
What happens to their vote, and where are these people hiding?
There are about 600,000 in the District of Columbia an area set aside specifically not to be a state so that the capital of the country would be free of local politics.
For most of the United States’ history people living in the district didn’t get to vote for president. Then in 1964 the constitution was amended to give D.C. the same number of votes as the least populous state, Wyoming.
So the electoral college likes DC. But you know who it doesn’t like? The Territories.
The often forgotten Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands and Northern Mariana Islands, get no votes from the electoral college because they aren’t states and they don’t have a special constitutional amendment to recognize them.
Which is a bit odd considering they’re part of the United States and everyone who lives there is a citizen so – for most practical purposes – they’re just like D.C.
And 4.4 Million people live in the territories – that might not sound like a lot, but it’s than the populations of Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska & Delaware. Combined.
But still, no votes from the Electoral College do they get.
The whole situation with territories is extra strange when you consider the final group of Americans who don’t live in States, the 6.3 million Americans who live abroad.
If you’re a United States citizen who moves to a foreign country, you can usually send a postal vote to the last state that you resided in.
But, if you move within the United States to one of its territories, you lose your right to vote for president for as long as you live there making these the only spots on the whole earth where Americans are not allowed to vote for president.
Actually, they’re the only spots in the whole Universe because American astronauts are allowed to vote for space.
The last bit of electoral college complication is the weirdest and has to do with the votes themselves.
The state of Florida – and all the others – doesn’t really give votes to a candidate, that’s just a simplified way to think about it, because the reality of the situation is… odd.
What citizens are voting for on election day is a group of electors appointed by the political parties who chose the president on the citizens’ behalf.
The number of votes that a state gets from the Electoral College is actually the number electors the state is allowed to send to a collegiate meeting to vote on who the president will be.
What makes it odd is that while these electors promise they will vote for president as their state’s citizens want them to, they aren’t required to do so.
Electors are free to vote the way they want . While this has never swung an election, 87 times in the past electors have voted against the wishes of the very people who elected them.
Why set up this crazy system where a small group of people essentially unknown to the general public are the ones who really decide on the president?
Because in the 1700s – when the electoral collage was designed – the quickest way to send a piece of information was to write it on a piece of paper, hand it to a guy on a horse, wish him godspeed, good sir’ and hope he didn’t get killed by indians or die of dysentery along the way.
Because information moved so slowly and because the young country was so big, the idea was to send all the electors to Washington where they could have the most up-to-date information to make decisions for the people back home who wouldn’t know the latest news.
Though now, when we carry information on beams of light in fiber optic cables rather than on the backs of herd animals this particular aspect of the electoral college might seem a little out of date.
None the less, while most people think that the election for president takes place in early november it doesn’t – that’s the election that determines who the electors will be.
The 538 electors who are chosen then meet in early december and they cast the real votes that determine who is the next president of the United States.
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