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Electoral College: How Does it Work?

US Vice President Joe Biden (C) helps to count the Electoral College votes for the 2012 presidential election during a joint Senate and House session at the Capitol. The session certified the re-election of President Barack Obama.(Getty)

US Vice President Joe Biden (C) helps to count the Electoral College votes for the 2012 presidential election during a joint Senate and House session at the Capitol. The session certified the re-election of President Barack Obama.(Getty)

Millions of Americans head to the polls on Tuesday to cast their ballots. When U.S. citizens go to the polls to elect the next president, they are in fact voting for their state’s slate of electors. The term “Electoral College” will be discussed at length throughout today’s election coverage. What exactly does that mean, and could there be a tie? Here’s an overview of how the electoral college works, and what you need to know as a voter.

WHAT IS THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE?

America elects its president through the electoral college, rather than directly on the results of the popular vote.

The 50 states and Washington, DC are allocated 538 electoral-college votes. The number of votes granted to each state depends on its representation in the Senate and House of Representatives. Every state has two senators and at least one representative.

Ohio, a battleground state, has 16 congress members in the House, so adding its two senators gives it 18 electoral-college votes. Florida, another critical swing state has 29 electoral-college votes comprised of 27 congress members in the House, and two senators. Washington, DC has no representation in the Senate or the House but was given three electoral-college votes in 1961.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Nearly every state awards its entire slate of electoral-college votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state. In other words, votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, even if a candidate wins the popular vote by a slim margin. Maine and Nebraska are the only exception as these states follow the congressional district method which allows for their electoral-college votes to be split among candidates. They award two electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote and then candidates receive another vote for each congressional district they win.

To win the presidency a candidate must secure a majority of 270 votes. This means a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the presidential election. In fact, this has been the case in four presidential elections. The most recent example of this was in 2000, when Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote by about 540,000 votes, but only secured 266 electoral-college votes. His opponent, Republican George W. Bush won 271 electoral-college votes and as a result, won the presidency.

WHAT HAPPENS IF THERE IS A TIE?

Regardless of party affiliation, many Americans are relieved to see a bitter and contentious presidential election coming to a close on Tuesday. However, it could drag on longer.

There are two scenarios that would result in the election going longer than Nov. 8: if the electoral college votes result in a tie, or if no candidate reaches 270 electoral votes.

While unlikely, an electoral college tie is not out of the realm of possibility. According to 270towin.com, there are 97 different scenarios in which the Electoral College could be tied 269-269.

In the event that the electoral votes are tied or if both candidates fail to reach 270 electoral votes, the presidential election is sent to the House of Representatives. Each state gets one vote towards the presidential election, regardless of how many House representatives it has, for a total of 50 votes. A majority of states (26) is needed to win.

According to the 12th Amendment, Congress cannot formally count the electoral college votes until Jan. 6. If Republicans maintain control of the House in today’s election, as expected, this scenario would favor Trump.

Although the presidential contest goes to the House of Representatives, the Senate selects the vice president, with each senator allowed one vote.

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