Electoral college: What is it, and is it really the best system?

A run-down of how Americans select their president and why it matters so much

Harriet Agerholm
Tuesday 08 November 2016 11:54
Electoral College voting: How the United States decides its president

A shock election victory for political outsider Donald Trump means people worldwide are wondering how it came to happen.

Here is a run-down of the US Electoral College voting system and why it matters so much.

How does the Electoral College system work?

The US president is not directly chosen by voters, but by ‘electors’ that people in a state vote for.

The more people in a state, the more electors an area has. For example, Texas has a population of 25 million and is afforded 38 Electoral College votes, while Delaware has a population of 936,000 and has only three votes.

There are 538 electors in total, corresponding to 435 members of Congress, 100 Senators and three additional electors for the District of Columbia. They will meet in their respective states on 19 December to ultimately elect the President.

Almost every state chooses to allocate all its Electoral College votes to whoever comes in first place statewide, regardless of their margin of victory.

Whoever gets to 270 electoral votes first – the majority of the 578 total votes – wins the election. And this time it was Mr Trump.

US Election: Presidential results by state - 05:00

Why is the Electoral College in place?

The system was established to ensure regional balance — it makes it mathematically impossible for a candidate with large amounts of support in just one region to overwhelm the vote.

What are the criticisms of the Electoral College?

It renders safe states almost irrelevant to the result of the election: for example it did not matter if Ms Clinton had won a state by five or 40 per cent, she would still have got the same number of Electoral College votes.

The US election result always hinges on a handful of states that are politically divided, which some say is undemocratic.


The swing states have a lot of power because most of them choose to elect whoever is the state-wide winner, regardless of the margin they won by.

Analysts also say the system favours smaller and more rural states, since the minimum number of electors a state can have is three — so states with very small populations are over-represented.

And the system technically allows the electors to hijack the result, since it is not certain the electors will vote the way their state does.

Although around 30 of the 50 states have passed laws that mean their electors must vote according to the popular vote in their state – the punishment for not doing so is can merely be a fine. This means they could potentially defy the electorate's choice.

Can a candidate who gets fewer voters than their opponent still become president?

In 1800, 1824, 1976 and most recently in 2000, the Electoral College System has elected a different president to the popular vote.

Al Gore won the nationwide vote by half a million votes in 2000 but was four Electoral College votes short of the presidency.

George W Bush won in Florida by just 537 votes, meaning he had more Electoral College votes and seized the White House.

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