US presidential elections: how they work
Winner must secure 270 Electoral College votes
In fact, Trump’s was the fifth United States presidential election in which the winner did not receive a majority of the popular vote. The first of these was John Quincy Adams in 1824, and the last before Trump was in 2000 in the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when the latter outvoted his rival but lost.
Again it could be the case in 2020 that the candidate with the most votes from the American public won’t be the winner. The reason is that the president is not actually chosen directly by the voters but by what is known as the Electoral College.
When Americans go to the polls in presidential elections they’re actually voting for a group of officials who make up this Electoral College. The word “college” here simply refers to a group of people with a shared task. These people are electors and their job is to choose the president and vice-president.
The electoral college meets every four years, a few weeks after election day, to carry out that task. The number of electors from each state is roughly in line with the size of its population. Each state gets as many electors as it has lawmakers in the US Congress (representatives in the House and senators).
California has the most electors – 55 – while a handful of sparsely populated states such as Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota (and Washington DC) have the minimum of three.
There are 538 electors in total. Each elector represents one electoral vote, and a candidate needs to gain a majority of the votes – 270 or more – to win the presidency. After California come Texas with 38 electors and Florida and New York with 29 each.
Generally, states award all their electoral college votes to whoever won the poll of ordinary voters in the state. For example, if a candidate wins 50.1% of the vote in Texas, they are awarded all of the state’s 38 electoral votes. Alternatively, a candidate could win by a landslide and still pick up the same number of electoral votes.
It’s therefore possible for a candidate to become president by winning a number of tight races in certain states, despite having fewer votes across the country. Only two states, Maine and Nebraska, divide up their Electoral College votes according to the proportion of votes each candidate receives.
This is why presidential candidates target specific “swing states” – those where the vote could go either way – rather than trying to win over as many voters as possible across the country.
Every state they win gets them closer to the 270 electoral college votes they need.
In 2016 Trump had almost three million fewer votes than Clinton, and in 2000 Bush lost the popular vote to Gore by more than half a million. The three other such presidential wins were all in the 19th century: Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
Why was the system chosen?
When the US constitution was being drawn up in 1787, a national popular vote to elect a president was practically impossible, due to the size of the country and the difficulty of communication.
At the same time, there was little enthusiasm for allowing the president to be chosen by lawmakers in the capital, Washington DC. So the framers of the constitution created the Electoral College, with each state choosing electors.
Smaller states favoured the system as it gave them more of a voice than a nationwide popular vote to decide the president. The Electoral College was also favoured by southern states, where slaves made up a large portion of the population. Even though slaves didn’t vote, they were counted in the US census (as three-fifths of a person).
Since the number of electoral votes was determined by the size of a state’s population, southern states had more influence in electing a president than a direct public vote would have given them.
Do electors have to vote for the candidate who won?
In some states, electors could vote for whichever candidate they prefer, regardless of who voters backed. But in practice, electors almost always vote for the candidate who wins the most votes in their state.
If an elector votes against their state’s presidential pick, they are termed “faithless”. In 2016 seven Electoral College votes were cast this way but no result has been changed by faithless electors.
What happens if no candidate gets a majority?
The House of Representatives, the lower house of US lawmakers, would then vote to elect the president. This has happened only in 1824 when four candidates split the electoral vote, denying any one of them a majority.
With two parties dominating the US system, this is unlikely to happen today.
The 2020 race
Businessman Trump has been among the most controversial presidents in US history, and just the third commander-in-chief to be impeached, being ultimately acquitted on party lines.
His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic hangs heavily over his re-election campaign, and is likely to go down as one of the worst disasters in US history. There will be 230,000 dead by election day, and climbing, with millions unemployed.
Days out from the election, former Vice-President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, leads in various opinion polls.