On 3rd November, the American people will choose their next president. Or will they? US presidential elections are a pretty complicated business. Here's your guide to how the process works.
Voters don’t directly elect the president
In fact, it’s the Electoral College that elects the president.
The Electoral College system was put into place as a balance between representing the will of the masses and providing a safeguard against their unpredictability.
At the birth of the United States in the 18th century, the country lacked a clear national identity. The states fiercely guarded their rights and it was feared that other voting systems might heavily favour the larger, more populous states, leaving smaller states out in the cold.
In the Electoral College system, each state is allocated a number of electors based on the number of senators (each state has two), plus their representation in the United States Congress, which is, in turn, based on the state’s population.
The biggest state (in terms of the number of electors), California, has 55 electors, while the smallest states, such as Wyoming and Alaska, have 3.
So, while a state like California is home to 12.03% of the entire population of the US, it only has 10.22% of the college votes. And Wyoming, which has just 0.18% of the population, has 0.56% of the college votes.
When the American people take to the polls on Tuesday 8th November, they’ll actually be voting for their states’ electors. Most electors pledge to support their party’s candidate. Although it’s not unheard of for so-called ‘faithless’ electors to vote for other candidates, the electors are usually chosen by the parties for their service and loyalty.
So, in reality, the American people indirectly elect their president.
270 electoral votes are needed to secure the White House
There are currently 538 electors. In order to make it to the White House, the winning candidate needs half of these votes plus one. Which means the magic number for the keys to the White House is 270!
It’s possible that the winner won’t have won the public vote
One major criticism of the system is that it is possible that the winner won’t actually have won the popular vote. That’s because every state except for Nebraska and Maine operate a ‘winner takes all’ system. This means that the winner of the popular vote in that state takes all of the electoral votes, so popular voting margins don’t matter in the overall, national picture.
The most recent example of this was the 2016 election, when Donald Trump lost the popular vote nationwide (he received 46.09% of the vote compared to Hilary Clinton’s 48.18%) but entered the White House thanks to receiving 304 electoral votes.
However, of the 53 presidential elections held, 48 have produced a popular mandate (i.e. the candidate who won the election also won the popular vote).
Swing states really do matter
Presidential campaign teams spend endless amounts of time working out what states to target, in order to win the 270 electoral votes they need.
So, obviously the winning strategy will target the biggest states, as they have the biggest share of the electors, right? Well, it’s not that simple. The biggest state, California with its 55 electors, is normally a pretty safe bet for the Democrats. The next largest with 38 electors, Texas, is usually a safe bet for the Republicans.
For presidential campaign teams, there’s very little reason to spend precious time and money on a state that can be relied on to vote one way or the other. So they tend to focus most of their energy on the ‘swing states’ – the states where either candidate has a chance of winning.
In this election, Florida (29 electors) and Pennsylvania (20 electors) are the biggest swing states – and so the biggest prizes!
What happens if no-one wins a majority in the Electoral College?
Under the 12th Amendment, if no candidate wins an Electoral College majority, the House of Representatives vote. Each state delegation receives just one vote, so the majority party in each delegation normally controls its vote. To win the presidency, a candidate must gain an absolute majority in this ballot.
The House of Representatives has elected the president just once before, in 1824, resulting in the presidency of John Quincy Adams.
Have your students been gripped by the 2016 US election?
Why not take this chance to encourage their interest in US politics, either current or historical, with a school trip - perhaps to Washington D.C., where they can see the White House for themselves?
For further information, please don’t hesitate to contact us.