The electoral college explained

Though polls leading right up to the presidential election measure the relative support each candidate has from voters, the winner will not be determined by the popular vote. Rather, in a process unique to the US, it is an electoral college that will pick the President and Vice-President. Jeremy Au Yong explains.

Q What is the electoral college?

A Perhaps the thing that is most confusing about the electoral college is that it is not a college. In fact, it isn't even a place. The US National Archives describes it as a process which consists of picking 538 electors, and a meeting where they vote for the President and Vice-President. A candidate becomes President by winning a majority of electoral college electors - at least 270 votes.

Q Who are the electors in the electoral college?

A The identities of the electors are not important as their votes are bound by the result of the presidential election in their own state.

Every state is allocated a certain number of electors based on its population. In nearly every state, electors are awarded to presidential candidates on a winner- takes-all basis. For instance, whoever wins the popular vote in Florida will get all 29 of its electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes are allocated on a proportional basis.

Q What happens in the event of a tie in electoral college votes?

A In the event of a tie or any candidate failing to win a majority, the task of picking the President goes to Congress.


Q Why does the electoral college matter?

A The structure of the electoral college has major implications in how candidates approach elections. Because the margin of the popular vote doesn't matter, candidates tend to ignore states where they are assured of winning the popular vote. They then focus all their energies on states where the contest is close. That's why states such as Texas and California - among the most populous in the US - hardly attract any attention. They have traditionally always voted for one party over the other, so candidates do not bother to campaign.

Currently, the map gives Democrats an edge with heavily Democratic states outnumbering heavily Republican ones in terms of electoral votes. All the resources are thus focused on the small number of states - the so-called swing states - whose electoral votes are up for grabs. These states include Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio.

Q Has someone ever lost the popular vote but won the electoral college?

A This has happened four times since 1960, with the most recent taking place in the year 2000 when President George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote but won the electoral college.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2016, with the headline 'The electoral college explained'. Print Edition | Subscribe