Here’s a little factual nugget that never fails to baffle:

American voters DO NOT directly elect the president.

Yes, you read that correctly: the U.S. president is not chosen through a one-person, one-vote system of direct democracy.

When voters head to the polls on Election Day to select the next president, we’re not actually voting for any one person. Instead, we’re throwing our support behind a group of “electors” who belong to a strange institution called the Electoral College. And it’s this mysterious group of 538 members that directly casts the actual votes to determine who the next president will be.

Don’t believe me? Check out Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution. Says it right there. Honest.

What is the Electoral College?

During presidential elections, state political parties select a group of “electors.” These are usually committed party activists who have pledged to support their party’s presidential candidate should he or she win the state’s popular vote.

How many electors does each state get?

It’s based on a simple equation: each state’s total number of congressional representatives plus its two senators. Every state (and Washington, D.C.) is guaranteed at least three electoral votes. A sparsely populated state like North Dakota – which has two senators but only one congressional representative – gets just three electoral votes.

On the other end of the spectrum is crowded California, which gets 55 electoral votes (equal to its 53 congressional representatives and two senators).

Interestingly — and controversially — the more than four million people living in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam get no electors. And although most residents of these territories are citizens and can participate in their party’s presidential primaries, they have no influence in the general election.

How does a presidential candidate win electors?

The presidential election is a grueling state-by-state battle, and in almost every one of those states, it’s a winner-take-all scenario. That means the candidate who receives the most popular votes — the plurality — in each state, gets all that state’s Republican or Democratic electors.

That’s bad news for the other candidates in the race: even if they lose the popular vote by a single votes, they walk away from that state empty-handed.

So looking again at California: if Hillary Clinton wins the popular vote, she gets all 55 electors, leaving Donald Trump with none.

And that’s why California and other very populous states like New York, Texas, and Florida are political jackpots: they have so many delicious electors for the taking.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, there are actually two states that follow different rules. Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system, in which two electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the remaining electors are decided by popular vote within each congressional district.

Why is 270 the magic number to win the race?

There are 538 electors nationwide, and to win the the presidency, a candidate needs just over half – or 270 of them. So if you win a state like California (even if you win it by a single measly vote), you’ve just secured about 20 percent of the votes you need to be sitting pretty in the White House come January.

Conversely, presidential candidates on the campaign trail generally don’t spend too much time in relatively underpopulated states like the Dakotas, where electors are scarce. You also probably won’t find them campaigning too much in big but generally politically predictable states like Democratic-leaning California or Republican-leaning Texas. It’s the big swing states (a.k.a. the battleground states) – like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia – where they’ll likely be spending most of their time as the election nears. These are the states that are still up for grabs and chock full of  electors; the one’s that usually decide the election.

270 To Win provides good interactive maps allowing users to simulate different outcomes. It also shows state-by-state breakdowns and results from previous presidential elections.

And what if neither candidate gets to 270 electoral votes?

The chances of this happening are incredibly slim, but if it did,the House of Representatives would elect the next president from a pool of the three candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each state delegation has one vote. The Senate would then elect the vice president, with each Senator casting a vote. This has only happened once: in the 1824 presidential election, Andrew Jackson won the most popular votes and led the pack in electoral votes. But because it was a competitive race among four candidates, Jackson fell short of winning the requisite electoral majority. Congress decided the outcome, and ultimately elected Jackson’s rival John Quincy Adams.

When do electors cast their official votes?

Oddly, it’s not until about a month after Election Day. On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December (stay with me here), each state’s electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their votes — one for president and one for vice president. This event never really gets a whole lot of attention because everyone already knows that those electors are almost certainly going to vote for the candidate in their own party. The results are announced the first week in January and the president is sworn in two weeks later.

Technically, electors can change their minds, but it’s only happened a handful of times (these electors are labeled “faithless”).

This is really confusing! How about a real example?

Sure. Let’s look back at the historic 2008 election when Democrat Barack Obama handily defeated Republican John McCain. First off, in terms of electoral votes, Obama pretty much killed it – he ended up with more twice what John McCain had: 365 compared to 173.

But Obama won the election by less than 10 million popular votes. Why? Because he was able to squeak out wins in the big critical swing states (namely Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida), amassing all of those electoral votes.

What happened in Florida is a actually a great example of just how peculiar our electoral system can be:

The Sunshine State is the quintessential mother-lode swing state; always unpredictable and worth a big chunk of electoral votes. In 2008, Obama won it by a margin of less than three percent (he got about 51 percent to McCain’s 48 percent). We’re talking about a victory of less than 300,000 votes. But because of Florida’s winner-take-all rule, Obama’s slim victory secured him all 27 of the state’s electoral votes (leaving McCain with squat). So depending on how you look at it, you could technically argue that the votes cast by the more than 4 million Floridians who voted for McCain didn’t really end up counting for much at all.

Can a candidate win the presidency without winning the popular vote?

Indeed! This has actually occurred four different times: in 1876 and 1888, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, respectively, won the White House even though they lost the popular vote (but won the electoral vote). And then there was that strange 1824 election, decided by the U.S. House of Representatives, which handed the presidency to John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson.

And finally, there was the infamous 2000 election, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, in which Al Gore won more popular votes than George W. Bush, but came up short on electoral votes (following a controversial Florida recount). Guess who then became a staunch advocate for getting rid of the Electoral College?

Why did the Founding Fathers come up with such a zany system? 

Two main reasons:

a) They wanted to steer clear of the British parliamentary model, in which the chief executive (prime minister) is chosen by elected representatives of the majority party. The founders thought that it was more democratic to appoint electors from each state than to have a system in which the president was elected by Congress.

b) It came down to an issue of old-school logistics: Back in the day, long distance communication and travel was, to put it mildly, a challenge. Voting for delegates at a local level was easier and less susceptible to tampering and corruption than was counting every last person’s vote across the whole country.

What are arguments for keeping the Electoral College?

  • It’s intended to make candidates pay at least some attention to less-populated states and rural regions (whose electors can add up) rather than focusing entirely on voter-rich urban centers.
  • It avoids the need for a nationwide recount in the event of a very close race.
  • It’s consistent with America’s representative system of government and it’s in our Constitution, so just leave it be!

And how about against?

  • Under our current electoral system, not all votes are equal; voters in swing states and less populous states have disproportionate power. And that means that not every vote has equal impact. In a direct democracy, everyone’s vote would have the same weight regardless of geography.
  • It encourages candidates to focus their campaigns largely in swing states while often ignoring the millions of voters in more populous states that tend to predictably favor one party.
  • It’s a super outdated system that makes it possible for a candidate to win more votes but still lose the election.

EXPLAINER: What’s the Deal with the Electoral College? 15 November,2016Matthew Green

  • s e

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), ensures that the candidates, after the conventions, will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided “battleground” states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored –including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That’s more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans, ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    The number and population of battleground states is shrinking as the U.S. population grows.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

  • s e

    In the current system, battleground states are the only states that matter in presidential elections. Campaigns are tailored to address the issues that matter to voters in these states.

    Safe red and blue states are considered a waste of time, money and energy to candidates. These “spectator” states receive no campaign attention, visits or ads. Their concerns are utterly ignored.

    The influence of ethnic minority voters has decreased tremendously as the number of battleground states dwindles. For example, in 1976, 73% of blacks lived in battleground states. In 2004, that proportion fell to a mere 17%. Just 21% of African Americans and 18% of Latinos lived in the 12 closest battleground states. So, roughly 80% of non-white voters might as well have not existed.

    The Asian American Action Fund, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, NAACP, National Latino Congreso, and National Black Caucus of State Legislators endorse a national popular vote for president.

  • s e

    With National Popular Vote, every vote would be equal. Candidates would reallocate the money they raise to no longer ignore more than 2/3rds of the states and voters.

    With National Popular Vote, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome.
    The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States and the population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population of the United States.

    Suburbs and exurbs often vote Republican.

    If big cities controlled the outcome of elections, the governors and U.S. Senators would be Democratic in virtually every state with a significant city.

    A nationwide presidential campaign, with every vote equal, would be run the way presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, under the state-by-state winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida.

    The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When and where every vote is equal, a campaign must be run everywhere.

    With National Popular Vote, when every vote is equal, everywhere, it makes sense for presidential candidates to try and elevate their votes where they are and aren’t so well liked. But, under the state-by-state winner-take-all laws, it makes no sense for a Democrat to try and do that in Vermont or Wyoming, or for a Republican to try it in Wyoming or Vermont.

    Even in California state-wide elections, candidates for governor or U.S. Senate don’t campaign just in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and those places don’t control the outcome (otherwise California wouldn’t have recently had Republican governors Reagan, Dukemejian, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger). A vote in rural Alpine county is just an important as a vote in Los Angeles. If Los Angeles cannot control statewide elections in California, it can hardly control a nationwide election.

    In fact, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland together cannot control a statewide election in California.

    Similarly, Republicans dominate Texas politics without carrying big cities such as Dallas and Houston.

    There are numerous other examples of Republicans who won races for governor and U.S. Senator in other states that have big cities (e.g., New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) without ever carrying the big cities of their respective states.

    Candidates would need to build a winning coalition across demographics. Any candidate who ignored, for example, the 16% of Americans who live in rural areas in favor of a “big city” approach would not likely win the national popular vote. Candidates would have to appeal to a broad range of demographics, and perhaps even more so, because the election wouldn’t be capable of coming down to just one demographic, such as soccer mom voters in Ohio.

  • s e

    None of the 10 most rural states (VT, ME, WV, MS, SD, AR, MT, ND, AL, and KY) is a battleground state.
    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes does not enhance the influence of rural states, because the most rural states are not battleground states, and they are ignored.

    Now political clout comes from being among the handful of battleground states. More than 2/3rds of states and voters are ignored.

    Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don’t matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

    Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK -70%, DC -76%, DE –75%, ID -77%, ME – 77%, MT- 72%, NE – 74%, NH–69%, NE – 72%, NM – 76%, RI – 74%, SD- 71%, UT- 70%, VT – 75%, WV- 81%, and WY- 69%.

    In the lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in nine state legislative chambers, and been enacted by 3 jurisdictions.

    Of the 25 smallest states (with a total of 155 electoral votes) 18 received no attention at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions. Of the seven smallest states with any post-convention visits, Only 4 of the smallest states – NH (12 events), NM (8), NV (12), and IA (7) – got the outsized attention of 39 of the 43 total events in the 25 smallest states. In contrast, Ohio (with only 20 electoral votes) was lavishly wooed with 62 of the total 300 post-convention campaign events in the whole country.

    In the 25 smallest states in 2008, the Democratic and Republican popular vote was almost tied (9.9 million versus 9.8 million), as was the electoral vote (57 versus 58).

  • s e

    The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated party activists, who vote as rubberstamps for presidential candidates. In the current presidential election system, 48 states award all of their electors to the winners of their state. This is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

    The Founding Fathers in the Constitution did not require states to allow their citizens to vote for president, much less award all their electoral votes based upon the vote of their citizens.

    The presidential election system we have today is not in the Constitution. State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award Electoral College votes, were eventually enacted by states, using their exclusive power to do so, AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Now our current system can be changed by state laws again.

    Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    The constitution does not prohibit any of the methods that were debated and rejected. Indeed, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors using two of the rejected methods in the nation’s first presidential election in 1789 (i.e., appointment by the legislature and by the governor and his cabinet). Presidential electors were appointed by state legislatures for almost a century.

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

    The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.

    The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state’s electoral votes.

    As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all method is used by 48 of the 50 states. States can, and frequently have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years.

  • s e

    Presidential elections don’t have to be this way.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 small, medium, and large states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions (including California) possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  • What happened to the old majority rules?
    The system sucks. Change it!

  • Margaret

    The vote of the majority of the people is what counts. The Electoral College made sense back in the day of no TV, radio, internet, etc. But not in todays world. It needs to be gone.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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