In the United States, a candidate becomes president not by winning a majority of the national popular vote but through a system called the Electoral College, which allots electoral votes to the 50 states and the District of Columbia largely based on their population.
There are a total of 538 electoral votes, or “electors,” meaning a candidate needs to secure 270 to win.
The system was a compromise between the nation’s founders, who debated whether the president should be picked by Congress or through a popular vote. In more than half of the world’s democracies, the head of state is directly elected by voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
The Electoral College
Allotment of electors
Each state has as many electors as it has representatives and senators in Congress. There are two senators for each state, but the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives varies based on population.
California, the most populous state, has 55 electors, while Wyoming, the least populous, only has three electoral votes.
The 4 million people who live in U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, cannot vote in the presidential election. That’s roughly equivalent to the number of people in the five least populous states combined.
Nomination of electors
Political parties select party loyalists to cast each state’s electoral votes. The criteria for selection varies by state. There are 538 “electors” — one for each vote in the Electoral College.
Voters cast their ballots. Although a ballot usually has only the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates, voters are actually voting for a group — or “slate” — of electors.
Winner takes all
All but two states use a winner-take-all approach: The candidate that wins the most votes in that state gets all of its electoral votes.
This means campaigns tend to focus on battleground states, rather than Democratic or Republican strongholds. Battleground states include Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Maine and Nebraska
Maine and Nebraska use a more complex district-based allocation system that could result in their combined nine electoral votes being split.
In 2016, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won three of Maine’s four electoral votes and Trump won one.
Electoral College convenes
The electors meet in December to officially cast their votes. The candidate that wins 270 electoral votes or more becomes president.
Generally, the meeting of electors is a ceremonial event where they simply rubber-stamp votes for the candidate who won their respective states. But in 2016, seven of the 538 electors voted for someone other than their state’s popular vote winner, an unusually high number. Three of these seven electors voted for Colin Powell, a former U.S. secretary of state, even though they represented states that picked Clinton.
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws intended to control electors from going rogue and voting for someone else. Some provide a financial penalty for these so-called “faithless electors,” while others call for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced.
In July, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision saying states have the authority to punish “faithless electors.”
The total number of electoral votes has stayed the same for decades despite changes in the population, which has led to a disparity in representation. One electoral vote in Wyoming, the least populous state, represents 193,000 people. One vote in Texas, the most underrepresented state, represents 763,000.
With most states following a winner-take-all approach, it is possible to win the Electoral College but lose the national popular vote.
Since 1876, four candidates have won the popular vote but lost the election. This happened in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote, and in 2016, when Trump pulled off a similar victory.
What could go wrong in 2020
Voting by mail
The number of people voting by mail has surged in 2020 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Mail-in votes are processed differently across the states, and some may not finish counting all the ballots on Election Day. If the race is close, there may not be a clear winner on election night.
Dueling slates of electors
Typically, governors certify the results in their respective states and share this information with Congress. In a closely contested state, it is theoretically possible for the governor and legislature to submit two different election results, leading to so-called “dueling slates of electors.” In 1876, dueling electors in three states deadlocked the election until a deal was brokered days before Inauguration Day.
The risk of this happening is heightened in states where the legislature is controlled by a different party than the governor. Several battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.
According to legal experts, it is unclear in this scenario whether Congress should accept the governor’s electoral slate or not count the state’s electoral votes at all.
Electoral College tie
One flaw of the Electoral College system is that it could result in a 269-269 tie. If that occurs, a newly elected House of Representatives would decide the fate of the presidency on Jan. 6, with each state voting as a unit, as required by the 12th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The requirement that each state votes as a unit currently favors Trump’s Republican Party. There are 26 states with more Republican members in the House than Democratic members.
The composition of the House will change on Nov. 3, when all 435 House seats are up for grabs.