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EXPLAINER: How the Electoral College system works

Q: How does the Electoral College work?

A: The Electoral College is an anomaly in the American voting system. In almost every case, voters directly elect a candidate such as a governor or U.S. senator. But in a presidential election, voters are selecting delegates, or electors, to the Electoral College.

For the presidential election, most states operate on a winner-takes-all basis. That is, the popular vote determines which candidate wins the entire roster of a state’s electors. The electors—who are generally appointed by their states’ political parties—then meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December to cast ballots for the president and vice president. The results announced on election night are unofficial until the Electoral College meets.

Electors are pledged to choose the candidate that a majority of their fellow state residents selected. It takes 270 Electoral College votes to win the presidency, from a total of 538 up for grabs.

Each state’s number of electors is determined based on its population. However, all, including the District of Columbia, have a minimum of three. Some people argue this gives too much sway to less-populous states. For example, Wyoming has three electoral votes and just 580,000 people, meaning that each elector potentially represents roughly 193,300 people. In a populous state like California, with 55 electoral votes, each elector represents 718,400 of its 39.5 million population. So, it is argued, each individual voter in Wyoming has more clout than each Californian.

Two states depart from the winner-take-all electors formula. Maine (4 electoral votes) and Nebraska (5 electoral votes) have adopted a more nuanced system, in order to more closely reflect local results. These states give two electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote. One elector is also awarded to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district.

Q: Why was this system chosen?

A: The nation’s founders created this representative system that balances power among the states as a compromise.

The idea of a president being elected by popular vote was controversial when the Electoral College was created at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Small states worried that more populous states would have a louder voice. Southern states with slaves who couldn’t vote thought the North might dominate.

The founders began with a proposal called the Virginia Plan, which would have allowed Congress to choose a president. However, critics argued that the president would then be beholden to Congress, and that threatened the separation of powers the founders prized.

The founders moved on to the concept of electors—third parties that could represent the states without also sitting in Congress. This avoided having a permanent body of electors that could be influenced or corrupted.

Over the years, many people have tried, without success, to change the Electoral College process. One idea is to move to a national popular vote.

Q: Has a candidate who lost the popular vote still become president?

A: Twice in recent memory—in 2000 and in 2016—the Electoral College has prevented the winner of the popular vote from becoming president.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. However, Donald Trump surged ahead with almost 57% of the electoral votes.

The same happened in 2000. Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote, but Republican George W. Bush received more electoral votes. President Bush’s victory came after a ballot recount in Florida and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Other presidents who lost the popular vote but won the election include: Benjamin Harrison in 1888; Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876; and John Quincy Adams in 1824.

Those contests are the exception, however. The Electoral College and the popular vote have coincided to select a winner in more than 90% of presidential elections.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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