By American University School of Public Affairs Professors Jennifer Lawless and Elizabeth Sherman
This morning at Washington, DC’s Foreign Press Center, we met with and briefed journalists from countries throughout the world. The topic? One of our favorites: Demystifying the Electoral College.
How are the U.S. president and vice president elected? By electors, not directly by voters. These electors make the decision; the people do not make the decision.
According to the Constitution, electors, who are usually selected at state party conventions, represent actually make the decision about which candidate will receive the electoral votes of their state. The number of electoral votes in a state depends on how many seats that state holds in Congress. All states have two for their senators, but states with small populations may have only one or two House members (Wyoming only has 3 electoral votes!). Larger states like New York, California, Texas and Illinois have many more.
Electors hear the voice of the people – which is made clear on Election Day – as expressed through the popular votes in their states, but then they cast the electoral votes that decide who the president and the vice president will be. They made the official decision in 2012 between Obama and Romney and in 2016 they will be the official deciders between Trump and Clinton.
The people in every state – let’s say Virginia – vote for their choice. Who the citizens of Virginia choose sends a very powerful message to the electors: We the people have vote – and, in our winner take all system, the candidate who wins the, the plurality actually gets all the electoral votes of the state, the losers get none. Only Nebraska and Maine award electoral votes based on the results in congressional districts so they are the exception to the winner take all rule. In each state this year the plurality of voters (not the majority) will have decided to vote for Trump or for Clinton. Then – in almost all circumstances – electors award their electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote in their state.
According to the Constitution, the winning presidential and vice presidential candidates must win a majority of all the electoral votes of the states, or 270. That’s just over half of the combined total of 538. If no candidate achieves a majority of the electoral votes (which can happen in a three or four way race), then the House of Representatives decides with each state getting one vote. In this situation, a majority is required (26 votes) to win the presidency and vice-presidency.
The electoral vote matters because that’s the “map” candidates consider when waging their campaigns. Starting with Bill Clinton in 1992, the electoral map began to look like the graphic that we see pretty much in every newspaper and every newscast today. And since 2000, the map has really been pretty similar.
In fact, since 2000, the Democrats have consistently won 18 states that total 242 electoral votes, which gets them almost 90 percent of the electoral votes they need. And those states, as a result, are not even considered in play. Those are states that we know the Democrat will win unless something absolutely crazy happens.
The Republicans, since 2000, have consistently won 21 states, totaling 179 electoral votes. Those states are smaller in population, so that only gets them 66 percent of the 270 votes that they need. On the Democratic side, we’re talking about a candidate trying to get 10 percent more votes, and on the Republican side, the Republican candidates are already two-thirds of the way there as well.
So, like in years past, the battle for the White House will take place in less than a dozen states.