Did you know that American voters do not directly elect the President of the United States?
The people that voters in every American state actually vote for are called “electors” – and it is these electors (who promise in advance to support a particular party’s nominee for President) who formally choose who serves as President.
Each American state is represented by a group of these electors – who are known as members of the “Electoral College” – and the number of electors (or “electoral votes”) that each state has is determined by the number of members of the United States Congress that each state has.
Because the number of members of Congress that each state has reflects the size of that state’s population, the number of electoral votes that each state has is population-based as well. (As the population of each state changes, so too does its number of electoral votes. For the 2016 presidential election, Arizona has 11 electoral votes – while the much larger (population-wise) California has 55 electoral votes and the much smaller Wyoming has only 3 electoral votes. (3 is the minimum number possible given that every state has at least 3 members of Congress: 2 members of the United States Senate and at least 1 member of United States House of Representatives.)
Today, there are 538 electoral votes – reflecting the 100 members of the United States Senate (2 for each of the 50 states), the 435 members of the House of Representatives (distributed amongst the states proportionally by population), plus 3 electors from the District of Columbia. What this means is that whichever nominee for President receives 50% plus 1 of these votes (for a total of 270 votes) becomes President. This is why, on election night, people watch closely to see which states each nominee for President wins.
In the vast majority of the 50 states, the nominee for President who wins the most votes cast by ordinary American voters on Election Day – which is known as the “popular vote” (the vote of the people) – in that state also wins all that state’s electoral votes. (There are two exceptions. In both Maine and Nebraska, 2 electoral votes go to the nominee for President who wins the most votes across the entire state, while 1 electoral vote goes to the nominee for President who wins the most votes in each of the state’s Congressional districts.)
The first nominee to win a collection of states whose electoral votes add up to 270 becomes the “President-elect.” The reason why the term “President-elect” is used – unless the successful nominee is already serving as President and was running for a second term in office – is because the President is not actually formally elected until the members of the Electoral College – the electors – cast their state’s votes in December and Congress officially counts them on January 6th. Inauguration Day – the day on which the President of the United States is sworn into office and officially begins his/her 4-year term – is always on January 20th (or January 21st if the 20th falls on a Sunday).
One interesting result of the Electoral College system is that a nominee for President can win the most electoral votes – and therefore become President of the United States – without actually winning the most votes from ordinary American voters. The reason this can happen is because ordinary votes cast in different states can have different effects on the Electoral College. For example, California (population: 39 million) is 65x larger than Wyoming (population: 600,000) but has only 18x as many electoral votes. In the 2000 presidential election, Republican nominee George W. Bush received the most votes in 30 of the 50 states – and won the Electoral College by 271 to 266 – but lost the popular vote to Democratic nominee Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes.
If you would like to learn more about the Electoral College, please visit the United States Government’s user-friendly Electoral College website at: http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/