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Explainer: How The Electoral College Chooses U.S. President


The tally in the Electoral College is what determines the winner of the U.S. election, not the popular vote.

The tally in the Electoral College is what determines the winner of the U.S. election, not the popular vote.

When Americans go to the polls on November 6 to vote for the next U.S. president, they will not directly determine which candidate goes to the White House.

Rather, the tens of millions of Americans who cast ballots will be voting for electors who form the 538-member Electoral College. Each of the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., has a set number of electors, largely reflecting population. For example, California, the most populous state, has 55 electors (reflecting the state's two senators and 53 state representatives in Congress); the small state of Vermont has only three electors (two U.S. senators and one representative).

Curtis Gans, a political science professor at American University in Washington, explains that with a couple of exceptions, the candidate who wins the popular vote in each state receives all of the electors from that state.

"Those electors are in [the] number of the congressional delegation in each state -- two for the Senate and however many representatives -- and they are elected by a winner-take-all vote in the states," Gans explains.

To win, a candidate needs a simple majority of those electors -- at least 270. If the Electoral College vote is tied, the House of Representatives is empowered to select the next president.

The Electoral College was devised in 1787 by the authors of the U.S. Constitution as a compromise between those who wanted a popular vote and those who wanted Congress to determine the president and is seen as protecting the rights of smaller states.

The system has led to controversies in the past because it is possible for a candidate to win the popular vote nationwide but still not gather the majority of Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.

That is what happened in 2000 when Republican candidate George W. Bush won the Electoral College, even though he received about 500,000 fewer votes nationwide than Democratic candidate Al Gore.

In 1876, when Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president, Democrat Samuel Tilden became the only U.S. presidential candidate to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote but still lose in the Electoral College.

In 1824, with four separate candidates running from the splintered Democratic-Republican Party, no single candidate won an Electoral College majority. As a result, the U.S. House of Representatives was called in and selected John Quincy Adams.

The only time the House of Representatives has broken an Electoral College tie was in 1800 when the same number of electors voted for both Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr.

-- Ron Synovitz
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