The most important thing to remember about the way in which the Electoral College functions is the number 270. In order for a political candidate to be elected as the President of the United States of America (USA) they have to receive 270 or more electoral college votes.

The question is, who casts these votes and how is this system directly linked to the votes

cast by everyday Americans who vote on election day (which is on 8 November in 2016).

Why The Number 270?

The Electoral College is comprised of 538 electors whose job is to elect the next man or woman who will be President of the USA (and their Vice-President) for four years until the next election occurs. The number of electors is not arbitrary. The 538 electors represent the combined number of politicians who serve in the United States House of Representatives (Congressmen – 435), the United States Senate (Senators – 100), and 3 electors who represent the District of Columbia.

Who Are The Electors And How Are They Selected?

Near enough any American can be selected as a member of the electoral college. However, there are a number of prohibited members of American society who cannot be electors because of their profession. For instance, Article 2, section 1, clause 2 of the US constitution prohibits US senators and US Congressmen from being selected as electors. In addition, it is also understood that Federal employees cannot serve as electors.

The selection of electors is left up to the States. While the process varies from State to State, it is generally based on a system which involves State political parties suggesting someone as an electoral college candidate nominee using their own methods – some State parties choose their nominees by allowing a committee to vote on selection, and others use voting systems at State political conventions. Of those people selected as electoral nominees they must pledge their vote towards one of the Presidential nominees – usually their national party’s candidate (e.g. Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in 2016).

How Does This Connect To The Average Voter?

When Americans cast their votes on election day and the early-voting days prior, they cast their vote for their preferred Presidential nominee. When all votes are counted the nominee who gains the most votes in each State wins all of the electoral college votes for that particular State. For example, in 2012 Barack Obama (Democratic nominee) and Mitt Romney (Republican nominee) competed against each other in the Presidential race of that year. When all votes were finalised in the State of California it was announced that Barack Obama had won the most votes in that State. As a result, all the elector college nominees who were nominated as those pledged to vote for Barack Obama in that year from California were then chosen as the official electoral college voters from the Golden State.

It is worth noting that there are two States which do not follow this rule. Both Nebraska and Maine distribute their electoral college votes in a proportional way rather than following the ‘winner takes all’ system which is used by the other 48 States.

Why is this important?

The importance of this system comes from the number of electoral college votes each State gets. For instance, in 2012 when Mitt Romney won the most votes in Texas he was awarded with 38 electoral votes, which put him 232 electoral votes away from the 270 he needed to win. In contrast, in the same election, when Mitt Romney won the most votes in Alaska he was only awarded 3 electoral college votes.

The number of electoral college votes per State is comprised of the number of US Senators a State has (each state has 2 US Senators) plus the number of US Congressmen a State has (this varies state by state based largely on the population of the State).

For example: 2012 Election

  • New York = 2 Senators + 27 US Congressman = 29 Electoral Votes
  • California = 2 Senators + 53 US Congressman = 55 Electoral Votes
  • Florida = 2 Senators + 27 US Congressman = 29 Electoral Votes
  • Utah = 2 Senators + 4 US Congressman = 6 Electoral Votes.

Under this system States with larger populations play a more pivotal role in electing the President because they have more electoral votes.

What Are ‘Swing States’?

While this system may look quite competitive in that it seems to require each Presidential nominee to go around to each State and campaign to earn their electoral votes, in reality this doesn’t happen. Much like ‘safe seats’ in the United Kingdom where constituencies consistently vote for one particular party, whether Labour or Conservative, ‘Red States’ and ‘Blue States’ exist in the United States, which almost guarantee a set amount of electoral college votes to a particular Presidential candidate without any effort because of the way in which the States lean politically.

Example ‘Red States’:

  • Texas
  • Louisiana
  • Utah
  • Arizona

These States are known as ‘Red States’ because they have consistently voted Republican over many years.

Interesting Fact: The last time a Democratic Presidential nominee won the most votes in the State of Texas was in 1976 (President Jimmy Carter)

Example ‘Blue States’

  • New York
  • California
  • Washington State

These States are known as ‘Blue States’ because they consistently vote Democratic over many years.

Interesting Fact: The last time a Republican Presidential nominee won the most votes in the State of New York was in 1984 (President Ronald Reagan)

A ‘Swing State’ is a State which is up for grabs. It is a State which swings back in forth between elections as it does not consistently vote for one particular party. These swing States are technically the biggest deciders in electing the US President. This is particularly obvious in the 2016 election where swing States such as Florida (29), Ohio (18), Colorado (9) and Pennsylvania (20) have a combined value of 76 electoral college votes. If Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump are able to win all of these States, thus earning all of their electoral college votes, they would be left with a target of 194 electoral votes and an easier path to the White House.

When Do The Electors Vote?

When all is said and done on election day the President may have been selected by the voters, but nothing is official until the electoral college members have cast their electoral college votes. While the Presidential election is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the electoral college doesn’t actually meet to cast their votes until December. Once they have cast their votes, their decision, which represents the will of the people, is then forwarded to the President of the Senate who reads out their votes to both houses of Congress in early January. Once this is complete the Presidential nominee who won 270 or more electoral college votes is officially considered President, and will then be inaugurated on January 20th.

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