By the Numbers

October 16, 2020
MAPPING IT OUT This U.S. map shows how many electoral college votes each state has in the 2020 election. (Alaska and Hawaii are not shown to scale or in the correct position.)

In most United States elections, the candidate with the most votes wins. But when it comes to picking a president, things aren’t quite so simple. Weeks after Election Day, ­a group of 538 people called the electoral college will actually elect the president.

Here’s how the electoral college works. A state gets electoral votes equal to the number of its members of Congress. It gets one vote apiece for its two senators. This never changes. It also gets one vote for each of its members of the House of Representatives, a number based on the state’s population. Washington, D.C., gets electoral votes too. A candidate needs at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes to become president.

In 48 states (and D.C.), the winner of the popular vote gets all of that state’s electoral votes. If a candidate wins by a small margin, he or she gets all of its electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, the electoral votes can be split between the candidates.

A Long Tradition

The Constitution established the electoral college. Some of the Founding Fathers wanted Congress to pick the president. Others wanted citizens to make the choice. The electoral college was a compromise. This encourages candidates to address the needs of all Americans rather than focusing on getting votes only in large cities.

Things got complicated in 1876. Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote. But his opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes, won the election by a single electoral vote. In 2000, George W. Bush won fewer votes than his opponent, Al Gore, but Bush had more electoral votes and went to the White House. The same thing happened in 2016. Donald Trump won fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton. But Trump had more electoral-college votes, and he won the presidency.

Many people think it would be more fair if elections were decided by the popular vote. Others think the electoral college keeps states with large populations from having too much power. What do you think?

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