What is the Electoral College?
The electoral college is a body of electors established by the United States Constitution (Article II, Section 1). It is convened every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president and vice president of the United States.
The United States is a democratic republic, meaning that in general, each state elects or appoints officials that represent the state’s residents at the federal level. This form of governance is also used to elect presidents, through the use of an electoral college where each state is allocated electoral votes that are cast by electors who represent the state.
Determining a Presidential Winner
It Takes 270 Votes:
The current electoral college is made up of five hundred and thirty-eight electors and to win the upcoming 2020 election a presidential candidate must receive a majority of the available electoral votes. Therefore, a contender must receive a minimum of two hundred and seventy votes to win.
Note that with the current electoral college, it is possible to tie at two hundred and sixty-nine votes apiece if only two candidates run, or for the candidate with the plurality of electoral votes to get less than two hundred and seventy votes if the votes are split between more than two candidates.
In the event no candidate gets a majority of the available electoral votes, the election for President is then decided in the House of Representatives. Each state delegation is allowed one vote and a majority of states (twenty-six) is needed to win the presidency.
Senators elect the Vice-President if the electoral college fails to pick a winner, with each Senator having one vote. A majority of Senators (fifty-one) is needed to win the vice presidency.
(Note: State House delegations can cast their vote for President from among the three candidates with the most electoral votes, while Senators are limited to the top two candidates in their vote for Vice-President.)
History has shown instances where the electoral college failed to determine a winner. An electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr was decided by the House of Representatives in 1800. In 1824, the house decided a four-way race in which the candidate who won the plurality of electoral votes, Andrew Jackson, lost to John Quincy Adams. In 1876, the House of Representatives resolved the complicated and still debated Hayes versus Tilden election.
Allocation of State Electoral Votes
As defined by the U.S. Constitution, each state is assigned a number of electoral votes as follows:
- One electoral vote for each member in the house of representatives (the number of representatives assigned to each state is determined by the national census, which is taken every ten years.), plus,
- One electoral vote for each senator. (Each state is assigned two senators)
Based on this system of assigning electoral ballots, the allocation of electoral votes for the upcoming 2020 election can be seen in the table below.
This system ensures that every state will have at least three electoral votes, and currently, California has the most electoral ballots at fifty-five. Also, the twenty-third amendment to the Constitution entitled Washington, D.C. to cast electoral votes in a number equal to the least populous state in order to allow the district’s residents to participate in Presidential elections.
So, each state and D.C. are allocated a specific number of electoral votes, but they are then free to determine how they choose their electors to represent them in the electoral college. Currently, all but two states assign all of their electoral votes to electors designated by the presidential candidate that wins the statewide election. In some states, the elector’s names even appear alongside the Presidential candidate on the ballot. (Maine and Nebraska divide their electoral votes by assigning an electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district and the remaining two electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the statewide vote.)
An analysis of the electoral college’s five hundred and thirty-eight ballots reveals three groups or tiers of states based on the number of electoral votes allocated to each state:
15 to 55 votes per state:
The top ten states all possess fifteen to fifty-five votes and constitute 19.6% of the fifty states plus Washington, D.C. These top ten states control a total of two hundred and fifty-six votes or 47.6% of the available electoral votes. (Top ten in order: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, and North Carolina.)
10 to 14 votes per state:
The middle group of eleven states represents 21.6% of the states plus D.C. and holds a total of one hundred and twenty-three electoral votes, which signifies 22.9% of the total electoral votes. (Middle eleven in order: New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.)
3 to 9 votes per state:
The remaining twenty-nine states and District of Columbia make up 58.8% of all the states plus D.C. They are assigned a total of one hundred and fifty-nine votes, for 29.6 % of all the available electoral votes.
Breakdown of Some Key States:
Texas has added electoral votes after almost every census, and never lost one, to reach its current maximum of thirty-eight.
Since becoming a state in 1845, Texas has participated in every U.S. presidential election except two. One during the Civil War in 1864, when the state joined the Confederacy, and the election of 1868 as the state endured Reconstruction.
For its first one hundred years as a state, Texas was a Democrat stronghold, voting democratic every time except once in 1928 (when anti-Catholic sentiment against the Democrat drove voters to the Republican candidate). But trends towards social liberalism in the Democratic Party have flipped most of the state with the exception of along the border with Mexico and in larger cities. Since 1980, Texas has gone Republican in every Presidential election. Democrats are hoping to flip Texas in 2020, but many think it will be difficult challenge for the Dems.
Florida has gained at least one electoral vote in every U.S. census since 1930 to reach the current high of twenty-nine votes.
Since its admission to statehood in 1845, Florida has participated in every U.S. presidential election except once in the election of 1864, which was during the American Civil War and the state had seceded to join the Confederacy.
Today, it is well known that Florida is a battleground state in Presidential elections. But from 1932 to 1956, Florida went to the democratic nominee for President in every election. Since 1960, the state has gone Republican ten times and Democrat five times. Famously, Florida was the center of attention in the 2000 Presidential election when the ballots were recounted a number of times. The 2000 election was so close, it took the Supreme Court to finalize the results. It is expected to be close again in 2020.
Wisconsin peaked with thirteen electoral votes in 1900. But since then it has slowly lost thee electoral votes to reduce the count to the current ten votes.
Since its admission to statehood in 1848, Wisconsin has participated in every U.S. presidential election.
It is considered by some to be a swing state as it has gone back and forth between the democrats and republicans in presidential elections, and many were tightly contested. However, in the last eight elections from 1988 to 2016, seven have gone to the Democratic candidate with the exception being in 2016, and this lone Republican win was considered an upset by many. These recent trends indicate the state is leaning towards the Democrats, but only slightly.
For the period from 1960 to 2016, the Presidential elections do show a more even distribution between the two main parties as Wisconsin voted for the Democrat candidate nine times, and six times for the Republican.
Many anticipate that Wisconsin will receive a lot of attention in the upcoming 2020 Presidential election and expectations are for the state to be hotly contested.
New York peaked with forty-seven electoral votes in 1930. But since 1950, it has consistently lost electoral votes, reducing its electoral ballots to the current count of twenty-nine.
An original colony, New York became a state in 1788 and has participated in every U.S. presidential election except in 1788-89 when due to a deadlock in the state legislature, it failed to appoint their eight electors.
Since 1960, twelve times the state has gone Democrat in the Presidential election, and three times Republican. However, in the last eight presidential elections, it has gone Democratic in every instance. The bulk of the state’s population is located in the major cities, where Democrats have a stronghold, so this democratic trend in Presidential elections is likely to continue through 2020.
Ohio peaked at twenty-six electoral votes in 1930 and 1960 but is now trending downwards, losing electoral votes after the last five censuses. The state lost one electoral vote in 1970, two in 1980, two in 1990, one in 2000, and two in 2010.
(Whig: 3, Democratic-Republican: 6) Since becoming a state in 1803, Ohio has participated in every U.S. presidential election.
Ohio is considered a bell-weather state since it has only picked the Presidential loser twice since 1896, meaning they voted for the winner 93.55% of the time in the last thirty-one elections. That is the best predictive percentage for all fifty of the states and Washington, D.C.
Since 1960, it has been fairly split down the middle, going democratic seven times, and republican eight times. As is the case in many states, the urban areas tend to vote democratic, and the rural areas tend to vote republican. However, there are some counties that swing in this state, mostly suburban, which may be why Ohio has proved to be more predictive of the eventual winner than other states.
Given its predictive history, the 2020 election is expected to bring Ohio into the spotlight once again and candidates are likely to focus on this state, campaigning there often.
Michigan peaked at twenty-one electoral votes in 1960. But is now trending towards losing electoral votes after each census, shedding one in 1980, two in 1990, one in 2000, and one in 2010.
Since its admission to statehood in 1837, Michigan has participated in every U.S. presidential election.
Michigan is like many of the other states, the urban areas and college towns tend to vote democratic as demonstrated by the 67% of the votes cast in Wayne county (home of Detroit) and 68% in Washtenaw county (home of Ann Arbor) that went to the democratic candidate in the last election. The rural areas tend to go republican but have far fewer people. This results in Michigan leaning democrat but the state will swing to the republicans on occasion. Since 1960, the state voted democrat nine times and republican six times.
In the 2016 election, the Republican Presidential candidate won, but by only 0.23% of the vote, the narrowest margin in the state’s history and the smallest margin of victory in any state during the 2016 election.
Given the small margin of victory in 2016, Michigan should get much attention in 2020. To win the presidency, a candidate will have to win states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Pennsylvania peaked at thirty-eight votes in 1912. But since 1932, The Keystone State has consistently lost electoral votes after a census going from thirty-eight to the current twenty votes.
(Whig: 2, Democratic-Republican: 8, Progressive: 1) One of the original thirteen colonies, since its admission to statehood in 1787 Pennsylvania has participated in every U.S. presidential election.
Pennsylvania went democratic in six straight Presidential elections from 1992 to 2012, and until recently, was considered to be part of the “blue wall” for the democrats. But in 2016, it broke that streak and went republican, when the Grand Old Party won with a margin of victory less than one percent of the statewide vote. Some experts consider this an indication that voting habits may be shifting in the Keystone State.
The twenty electoral votes are an important prize for any Presidential candidate. But Pennsylvania, like many industrial northern states, has seen its population dwindle in recent decades. Peaking at thirty-eight electoral votes during the 1910s and 1920s (second only to New York), the state has since lost forty-five percent of its electoral ballots in eighty years. It is currently expected to lose another electoral vote after the 2020 census.
Even with the electoral votes it has lost, Pennsylvania will still be one of the battleground states. For the 2020 election, Pennsylvania will be in the cross hairs of every presidential candidate. In many scenarios, a candidate cannot win without this state and, combined with small margin of victory in the 2016 election, campaigning by both parties is expected to be aggressive in the state.