You can win the most votes but still lose: Here’s how U.S. elections work

President Barack Obama votes early for the midterm election at the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Service Center, Oct. 20, 2014, in Chicago. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Photo

The U.S. election is considered by many as the most important election in the world. However, the rule that is well known in most democracies –whoever gets the most votes at the end of the day is the winner — does not apply to the election in the U.S. In fact, in the U.S., citizens do not directly elect their president but rather the people who will vote on their behalf. This is known as the Electoral College.

And as Americans head to the polls this November to decide whether Donald Trump remains in the White House for another four years, the Electoral College rule, which some argue is outmoded, will still work.

The Electoral College system was conceived by the founding fathers of the American Union and indicates that 538 electors or delegates (corresponding to the 435 members of the House of Representatives, the 100 members of the Senate and the three delegates from the unrepresented District of Columbia) vote for the president, explains stamford advocate.

The Electoral College meets every four years, some weeks after election day, to accomplish that assignment. The candidate who wins the majority of 538 electors, known as the Electoral College, becomes the next president, according to the U.S. constitution.

Each elector represents one electoral vote, and a candidate must win a majority of the electoral votes – 270 or more – to win the presidency. Generally, the candidate who wins a state’s popular vote gets the support of the state’s electors.

Each state has a different number of electors based on census results. And because some states do have more electors than others, it is possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote but win the election, as witnessed in 2000 with George W. Bush and 2016 when Trump entered the White House even though his rival Hillary Clinton had more popular votes — about 3 million more votes.

That being the case, candidates, ahead of presidential elections, largely focus on winning states like Florida (29), Texas (38), and New York (29) as against Vermont, Wyoming or Alaska, which all have just three electoral votes. For instance, a candidate who wins Florida (29), Texas (38), and New York (29) will gain 96 electoral votes as against gaining just nine electoral votes from Vermont, Wyoming or Alaska.

This year, under U.S. law, the electors will meet on December 14 to cast their votes for president and vice president. Congress will meet on January 6 to count these votes and officially name the winner, who gets sworn in on January 20.

As mentioned, in every state but two (Nebraska and Maine), the candidate who wins the majority of popular votes, according to theory, wins all that state’s electors. In other words, electors do vote for the candidate who wins the most votes in their state. Electors who choose to go against the popular vote are termed “faithless” as seen in 2016 when seven “faithless electors” went in for a candidate who was not backed by voters. It is, however, important to note that faithless electors have never determined a U.S. election outcome.

What happens if neither candidate secures a majority of electoral votes?

The House of Representatives, the lower house of U.S. lawmakers, will vote to elect the president while the Senate selects the vice president.

This scenario occurred in 1825 in the election of John Quincy Adams, but analysts say that with two parties dominating the system now, the U.S. may not experience such situation today.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 2, 2020


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