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An explanation of what the Electoral College is and its history

Jack Margaros
@JackMargaros

Surprisingly enough, the popular vote elects essentially every high ranking politician in the United States, except the most important.

The President.

The Commander-In-Chief is ultimately elected through the Electoral College.

This highly complex and confusing system will elect either Joe Biden or Donald Trump in less than a month to lead the country for the next four years. It’s been the preferred election style since it was created at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and the result doesn’t always reflect the candidate that receives the most votes.

In 2016, Donald Trump technically won the election because he garnered more electoral votes. But Hilary Clinton received over three million more votes in the popular vote. This wasn’t the first instance, either.

In the 2000 election, Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush earned more electoral votes. John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison are more examples of previously elected presidents in the same situation.

The Electoral College was created to promote parity — hinder the formation of powerful groups — and the nation’s founders did not want to rely on popular majorities. Since its inception, there have been a fair share of questionable moments, including the election of 1800 where Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received an equal number of electoral votes.

Currently, there are a total of 538 electoral votes unevenly spread out across 50 states and the District of Columbia. Some states hold as little as three electoral votes (Delaware) and some as many as 55 (California). The amount of electoral votes each state receives is based on population. The number of electoral votes needed to clinch the election is 270.

In order to determine which candidate receives a particular state’s electoral votes, there are a slate of electors appointed by their state’s political parties. As Americans cast their ballots, they are in turn voting for those electors to pledge their support to a party’s candidate. Theoretically, the electors promise to pick the party their state votes for, but they don’t always do so — or at least hold the power to vote the opposite way if they desire.

In 2016, a record amount of electors (7) broke their promises to vote for their pledged nominee, causing fierce debates over whether electors should have the power to change their position. Thirty-three states have laws in place that require electors to vote for the pledged candidate. Some states replace electors if they change their position.

There are states who historically lean Republican or Democrat regardless of who that party’s candidate is. Texas has voted Republican in the past four elections, and are likely to continue that trend in 2020. Same with Massachusetts, which has voted Democrat in the past four elections. States like these that are all but set in their decisions don’t garner as much attention on the campaign trail from either candidate, because they already know where those electoral votes are headed.

Battleground, or swing states, are immensely important in an election, and more often than not determine the results. These are states that could legitimately lean either way, and it takes convincing from both parties to pick up their votes and get closer to the magic number of 270. Ohio, for example, is a swing state this year. They hold 18 electoral votes. Virginia, which holds 13 votes, is a battleground state as well.

Thirty-one votes is a massive shift in momentum, so both candidates fight hard on their campaign trail for the swing state votes.

Due to an even number of electoral votes, a tie is a very possible situation in this year’s election. In that case, the House of Representatives control the vote, with each state voting as a unit. Twenty-six votes in the clinching number is this scenario, and if there’s a tie within the state’s delegation, that state’s vote is null.

No system is perfect, and that’s especially the case with the Electoral College. It is quite puzzling that it is exclusively used to elect the most important position in the United States, but there’s no sign of it changing any time soon.

Nevertheless, the path to 270 is never easy.

Photo: National Geographic

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