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 an electoral college where each state is allocated electoral votes cast by electors who represent the state.
Determining a Presidential Winner
It Takes 270 Votes:
The current electoral college is made up of 538 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.
With the current electoral college, it is possible to tie at 296 votes apiece if only two candidates run. The candidate with the plurality of electoral votes gets less than 270 votes if the votes are split between more than two candidates.
If 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 (26) are 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 (51) are 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. The House of Representatives decided an electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr 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 55. The twenty-third amendment to the Constitution entitled the District of Columbia to cast electoral votes equal to the least populous state 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. Still, they are free to determine how they choose their electors to represent them in the electoral college. 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 each congressional district's winner. The remaining two electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the statewide vote.)
An analysis of the electoral college's 538 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 15 to 55 votes and constitute 19.6% of the fifty states plus Washington, D.C. These top ten states control a total of 256 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 11 states represents 21.6% of the states plus D.C. and holds a total of 133 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 29 states and the District of Columbia make up 58.8% of all the states plus D.C. They are assigned a total of 159, for 29.6 % of all the available electoral votes.
Breakdown of Some Key States:
After almost every census, Texas has added electoral votes and never lost one to reach its current maximum of 38.
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 100 years as a state, Texas was a Democratic stronghold, voting Democratic every time except once in 1928, when anti-Catholic sentiment against the Democrat candidate, Alfred E. Smith, drove voters to the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover. But trends towards social liberalism in the Democratic Party have flipped most of the state except for along the border with Mexico and in large cities. Since 1980, Texas has gone Republican in every Presidential election. In the 2020 election, Texas voted for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump.
Florida has gained at least one electoral vote in every U.S. census since 1930 to reach the current high of 29 votes.
Since its admission to statehood in 1845, Florida participated in every U.S. presidential election except 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, which was so close, the Supreme Court had to finalize the results. In the 2020 election, Florida voted for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump.
Wisconsin peaked with 13 electoral votes in 1900. But since then, it has slowly lost three 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. In the last eight elections from 1988 to 2016, seven have gone to the Democratic candidate, with one upset loss to the Republican candidate in 2016. These recent trends indicate the state is leaning towards the Democrats, but only slightly.
From 1960 to 2016, the Presidential elections 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.
Wisconsin voted for Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
New York peaked with 47 electoral votes in 1930. But since 1950, it has consistently lost electoral votes, reducing its electoral ballots to the current count of twenty-nine. New York currently has 29 electoral votes.
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 its eight electors.
Since 1960, New York state has gone Democratic 12 times in the presidential election and Republican three times. 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. New York voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Ohio peaked at 26 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. Ohio currently has 18 electoral votes.
(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 three times since 1896, meaning they voted for the winner 90.63% of the time in the last 32 elections. That is the best predictive percentage for all 50 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, some counties swing in this state, mostly suburban, which may be why Ohio has proved to be more predictive of the eventual winner than other states.
In the 2020 presidential election, Ohio voted for Republican Donald Trump.
Michigan peaked at 21 electoral votes in 1960 but is losing electoral votes after each census, shedding one in 1980, two in 1990, one in 2000, and one in 2010. Michigan currently has 16 electoral votes.
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 has voted Democratic 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 got plenty of attention in the 2020 presidential election, where the state voted for Joe Biden.
Pennsylvania peaked at 38 votes in 1912. But since 1932, The Keystone State has consistently lost electoral votes after a census going from 38 to the current 20 votes.
(Whig: 2, Democratic-Republican: 8, Progressive: 1) One of the original 13 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 was considered part of the "blue wall" for the democrats. 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 20 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 38 electoral votes during the 1910s and 1920s (second only to New York), the state has since lost 45% of its electoral ballots in 80 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. Pennsylvania was a vital state for the 2020 presidential election. Pennsylvania went blue in the 2020 presidential election and voted for Joe Biden.