The 2016 presidential election is just a few weeks away and, as you’re probably well aware, things are a bit insane at the moment. With new accusations of sexual misconduct by Republican candidate Donald Trump emerging almost daily, and many of his supporters tweeting to repeal women’s right to vote (WTF!!), heading to the polls on November 8th is more important than ever.
But you may be wondering: Does my vote for the president really count? And the answer is that it most certainly does, but in a roundabout sort of way.
Here’s the thing: There’s a group called the Electoral College that actually chooses the president and VP, but most of its members (called “electors”) are pledged to vote for the party slate chosen by the majority of voters. That means that when you cast your vote, you’re directing pledged Democrat or Republican Electoral College members to cast their votes accordingly.
Still with us?
If you’re a little confused, don’t sweat it. We were, too! The following is a primer that will (hopefully!) help you understand the Electoral College — and why it matters in this election.
What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is a group of 538 electors chosen by the states who formally elect the president and vice-president of the United States. The number 538 is equivalent to the sum total of senators (100) and members of Congress (435), plus three electors given to the District of Columbia, and ensures that all states have a fair hand in electing the president and VP based on their population size.
The Census, which is conducted every 10 years, determines how many electoral votes each state gets, so a state can gain or lose a couple of votes depending on its population in a given Census year.
The Electoral College was created in 1787 by a constitutional provision. It has undergone some changes since then — such as how electors are chosen — but it remains a vital (if hotly contested) part of our democracy.
How are its members selected?
Anyone can become an elector, except for members of Congress and persons holding offices of “Trust or Profit” under the Constitution. In general, electors are proposed every four years by party organizations in each state and are pledged to vote for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates leading that party.
How does it work?
On Election Day, voters go to the polls and cast their ballot for a party slate (e.g. Democratic ticket Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine). In all states except Nebraska and Maine, the slate that wins the majority of votes claims all of the Electoral College votes in that state. The candidate who receives at least 270 electoral votes wins the presidency.
In Nebraska and Maine, the candidate who wins the most votes gets two electoral votes (for the two senators) and the rest of the electoral votes are assigned congressional district by congressional district — based on proportional representation. That means candidates from both parties can win electoral votes in those two states, unlike the winner-take-all system in the rest of the country.
Though it’s not required by the Constitution, there are laws in 24 states and the District of Columbia requiring electors to vote according to the popular vote (i.e. for their party’s candidate), and Virginia law states that electors are “expected” to vote a for a party’s candidate. In the rest of the country no such laws exist, but throughout the nation’s history, over 99% of electors have voted according to the popular vote.
Electoral College members officially cast their votes for president and vice-president on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December.
Can the Electoral College really have an impact?
It sure can. A candidate can win the popular vote (the majority of ballots cast by American citizens) but still lose the presidency. That happened in 2000, when George W. Bush was elected president. While he won 49.7% of the popular vote, and Democratic rival Al Gore won 50.3%, Bush received 271 Electoral College votes and became president. He won by small margins in many states, and the winner-take-all system worked in this favor.
How can it affect this election?
There are a few ways the Electoral College could change the outcome of this election. First, if Trump were to drop out of the race, the Republican Party would select a replacement candidate. While Trump will still appear on the ballot — since the ballots have already been printed and many absentee ballots have been cast — Electoral College members will know to vote for the new Republican candidate, even though the popular vote was technically cast in favor of Trump. Indeed, some absentee voters who have already case their ballots may have voted for Trump in good faith, but their votes would go towards the replacement candidate under the Electoral College system if Trump dropped out of the race now.
Here’s another scenario: If neither Clinton nor Trump was able to secure a majority of electoral votes, the decision would be made by Congress; the House elects the president and the Senate elects the vice-president. The Denver Post has suggested that if a third-party candidate were to win the electoral votes in a state, while Clinton and Trump split the rest of the votes 50-50, the House might compromise by selecting the third-party candidate as president.
Plus, we could find ourselves in another Bush-Gore situation.
If you want a little more information on how the Electoral College works — complete with fun graphics! — watch the video below.