How the US Electoral College Electoral System Actually Works

This year’s U.S. election comes amid a pandemic, protests against the police’s treatment of African Americans, and warnings of false news and misinformation.

Polls suggest that Democratic candidate Joe Biden is way ahead of Republican President Donald , but the polls were wrong before and the president’s race is far from a simple popularity contest.

The race is decided in a small number of key battlefield states through a complex and often criticized voting process known as the Electoral College.

It’s not a popularity contest

A common misconception about the US election is that winning a majority of the votes wins the presidency. That’s not how it works. Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Democratic national referendum, as did Al Gore in 2000, and neither became president.

Technically, voters in the US do not elect the president directly. Yes, you read that right. The US has one indirectly Democracy, which means that the president is actually elected through a process called an electoral college.

It doesn’t matter whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden get the most votes – it depends where they get them.


This has nothing to do with actual colleges or universities at all. It is a process where a group of state-to-state officials vote for the US president.

The Electoral College was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution by the Founding Fathers to act as an intermediary between voters and candidates, and to prevent the American people from electing a despot or a tyrant.

The race for 270

The United States has a total of 538 voters, with each state assigned a specific number.

The number of voters in each state is determined by the number of people in Congress. The more populous the state, the more voters it has. California has 55 voters, Texas has 38, and Florida has 29. Alaska, Montana, and Idaho each have only 3.

How Hillary Clinton lost the US election to Donald Trump in 2016.


In every state, every political party has its own electoral roll. On election day, US citizens essentially vote for which electoral roll represents their state.

For example, if Mr. Trump secures the referendum in the state of Oklahoma, it will be the Republican Party’s electoral roll that will be able to cast their votes.

It’s a winner in any scenario where profit margin doesn’t matter. Even if a candidate wins a state with only one vote, he asks all voters in that state to count towards their total. To use the same example, if Mr Trump wins Oklahoma, he will have all seven of that state’s votes.

The candidate who secures the magic number of 270 or more votes wins the presidency.

So is there still a vote?

Meanwhile, voters rarely vote against the wishes of their respective states or parties. This way, we can predict with a high degree of certainty who will win the presidency once the official voting results are in on the night of the elections.

About a month after election day, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, voters meet in their respective states and cast their ballots.

This is where the direct vote actually takes place and the US President is officially elected.

Observe the key states

“Blue” states like New York, California and Illinois have voted democratically in each of the last four elections. “Red” states like Alabama, Mississippi and Utah have elected Republicans in each of the last four elections.

Then there are the purple states, usually between five and ten states in each election, that could change which party they support. These states are also known as the “battlefield” states and are often the place where elections are won or lost.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and Iowa Voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but switched to Mr. Trump in 2016.

In this way, and despite low profit margins, Mr. Trump obtained a comfortable victory over Mrs. Clinton through the electoral college. 304 votes to 224.

This time around, there could also be significant shifts in traditionally Republican states like North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, and even Texas.

Is the Electoral College a Good Thing?

It is important to remember that a decisive win in some states is not as meaningful as a close win in multiple states.

Democrats vote very well in populous cities, but those huge profit margins count for nothing in the electoral college. It is a winner of all systems, with the winner claiming by far all the votes of that state (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, the only states that allow split votes).

This explains how Ms. Clinton won the 2016 national referendum by three million votes, but lost the presidential race. Those extra votes didn’t really count for much.

In the US, Democrats in particular are currently calling for reform of the electoral college. Mr Trump criticized it in 2012 and praised its effectiveness in 2016. No prizes for guessing what happened in between.

Why demographics matter

Both Mr Trump and Mr Biden are white men in their seventies, any leading political party with a predominantly white membership base.

The Democrats have traditionally been the preferred political party for minority groups in the United States, including African Americans, Hispanics and Asians, and this was reflected in the 2016 election, according to an analysis of polls by the Pew Research Center.

Ranks of voters wait in the rain to cast their vote in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The swing state of Florida is a hotly contested battlefield with 29 votes.

Ms. Clinton received roughly two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2016, but it was a 10 percent decrease from that community’s support for Mr. Obama in 2012. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump did well and secured among white, non-Hispanic voters 58 percent of the available votes went to Ms. Clinton’s 37 percent.

Mr Trump also received just eight percent of the African-American vote, roughly as much as his Republican predecessor Mitt Romney in 2012.

A majority of men voted for Mr Trump over Ms. Clinton (53 to 41 percent), while a similar percentage of women supported Ms. Clinton over Mr Trump.

In 2016, older voters preferred Mr. Trump while younger voters preferred Ms. Clinton, but support among younger voters for Ms. Clinton in 2016 was not as strong as it was for Mr. Obama in 2012.

Traditionally, younger people choose less.

Republicans are generally more likely to vote than Democrats.

Level of education and voting behavior

Perhaps the most striking result of the 2016 election was the distribution of votes based on an individual’s level of education, with a significant gap between those with and without a college degree.

According to further analysis by the Pew Research Center, college graduates supported Ms. Clinton by a margin of nine points (52-43 percent), while those without a college degree supported Mr. Trump by 52-44 percent.

Protesters against the elected US President Donald Trump are calling on the electoral college to choose another candidate.
Despite the requirement that the electoral college elect another candidate in 2016, this is very rare.


It was by far the largest gap in support between college and non-college graduates in Exit surveys from 1980.

In 2016, a majority of voters in populous urban areas voted for Ms. Clinton (59 to 35 percent), while a similar majority in rural areas voted for Mr. Trump (62 to 34 percent). The suburban vote was much closer and was won by the Republican Party by five points (50 to 45 percent).

What to expect on election night

Voters will vote in the US on November 3rd.

For earlier elections, voting results begin on the evening (US time) of election day and a winner will be announced later that night. Last year, Mr Trump declared victory at around 3 a.m. the day after.

This year will almost certainly be different. Due to COVID-19 there will be a much higher number of pre- and letter votes that have to be counted. Depending on how close the votes are, it can take days, weeks or even months.

With responses to COVID-19 in the US becoming so politicized, it is expected that more Democratic voters will use early and postal voting, while Republican supporters are more likely to show up at a polling station on the big day.

That means the early polling numbers that come in on election night are likely to show support for Mr Trump, but the early and postal votes that are counted later are likely to bring a spike for Mr Biden.

A narrow margin of support for Mr Trump prior to the pre-election and postal vote count is unlikely to do Republicans any good.

Can you trust the polls?

Mr Trump was elected on an anti-establishment platform that promised to fight back against globalization and create jobs in Central America. Polls show he is still the more trustworthy candidate in terms of business.

In 2020, his promise to make America great again goes beyond economic. In the face of nationwide protests against Black Lives Matter, he has branded himself an advocate of law and order.

Twitter / @ 270toWin

Conversely, Mr. Biden hopes not to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes. Ms. Clinton largely accepted victory in battlefield states where the polls showed her leadership. The polls, as we now know, were wrong.

If Republican voters in traditionally red states don’t leave Mr Trump in 2020, voters in key battlefield states will again make the election.

Whoever wins, there will be a housewarming ceremony at the White House on January 20, officially marking the start of the president’s four-year term.

SBS News will be reporting live on the US election.

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