It’s that time again: pumpkin spice, football games, and elections. This election season is very important because the people of the United States are preparing to choose a president. Registered citizens age 18 or over may cast ballots in the November contest. The person with the most votes wins . . . sort of. Presidential elections are a bit more complicated.
In a U.S. presidential election, there are two types of votes: popular votes and electoral votes. Presidential candidates want to get as many popular votes as they can. But mostly, that’s for bragging rights. What candidates really need in order to win is electoral votes.
A popular vote is an individual vote cast by mail, computer, punch card, or some other method. An electoral vote is the vote of a person called an elector. When voters cast ballots for president, they’re actually voting for an elector from their state.
There are 538 electors. They make up the electoral college. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
Despite its name, the electoral college is not a school. Here’s how this very American voting system works:
Each state has the same number of electors as it has members of Congress: its U.S. representatives plus its two U.S. senators. That’s why some states have lots of electors (like California with 55), and others have few (like Wyoming with three).
Once everyone in a state votes, officials count how many people voted for each candidate. The candidate with the most popular votes wins all the electoral votes of that state. (Only Maine and Nebraska allow electors to split the votes.)
Today, many people want to ditch the electoral college. They believe the popular vote should determine the president. There are interesting arguments on both sides.
Some people favor the system because it protects state’s rights—allowing each state to award electors as it pleases. It also helps states with fewer people have a voice in the election without being drowned out by states with lots of people.
Other people believe the electoral college is unfair. They point out that the candidate who wins the electoral vote could still lose the popular vote. This has happened five times: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.
Further, some say the electoral college gives a few so-called “swing states” too much power over the election. These states—such as Florida and Ohio—have records of voting either way, so candidates pay them lots of attention hoping to win their electoral votes.
Those who set up the U.S. electoral college wanted everyone in the country to have a say. It was the best system of checks and balances they could devise. At election time, it’s important that every voter votes!
(A worker prepares tabulators for the upcoming election in Raleigh, North Carolina. The machines will collect popular votes. AP Photo/Gerry Broome)