U.S. election: How does the Electoral College work?

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are on the ballot to become the next president of the United States. But the outcome of the Nov. 3 election also involves a bunch of names most Canadians (and Americans) haven’t heard of — 538 of them to be exact.

They’re known as electors. And it’s the ballots they cast after the election that determine who the next U.S. president will be.

The process for electing the president and vice-president is called the Electoral College. Enshrined in the Constitution, the system is intended to balance the preference of the majority with that of individual states.

Here’s a simplified look at how it works — and why it’s controversial.

Electoral College 101

In Canada, party leaders are generally selected by those who have signed up to become members. Then, the political party that gets enough seats in the House of Commons typically forms government and its leader becomes prime minister.

While Americans have more of a direct say in their leader, it’s also far more complicated.

Presidential elections are held every four years in early November, and in the lead-up to the vote, Democrats and Republicans select who they want to compete in the race through state primaries and caucuses, then national conventions.

The successful candidates for each party also name their vice-presidential running mate.

The outcome of the presidential election depends on the result of the popular vote in each state. But states don’t get an equal say.

Instead, the country is divided up into 538 electoral votes. Every state is allocated a portion based on how many legislators it has in Congress.

Each state has two senators, plus at least one member of the House of Representatives — potentially many more if it’s a heavily populated state.

So, the number of votes varies widely. For example, California, the biggest state by population, has 55 electoral votes, while states like Wyoming, Delaware and Alaska have just three votes each. The District of Columbia gets three votes as well.

To become president, a candidate needs to receive at least 270 out of 538 electoral votes.

The ballots are cast by officials called electors who are affiliated with either of the two parties.

In each state, the political party that receives the most votes for its presidential candidate gets to see its slate of electors cast their ballots for president.

For almost all states, it’s a winner-takes-all situation, meaning that if a state votes 48 per cent Democrat and 52 per cent Republican, only the Republican-affiliated electors get to cast an electoral ballot.

So if a majority of Texans vote for a Republican candidate, for example, that means the party gets all 38 electoral votes.

For Nebraska and Maine, however, there’s a possibility that both Republican and Democrat electors could cast ballots. They consider the popular vote and the result by district in awarding electoral ballots.

Sometime after Americans cast their ballots — for this election it’s Dec. 14 — the electors hold meetings in their states and cast their votes for president and vice-president.

On Jan. 6, a joint session of U.S. Congress will be held to count those ballots, and the winner will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Can electors vote against their party and the popular vote?

It’s happened. By and large, however, electors throughout U.S. history have cast their ballots in accordance with how their state voted. According to the U.S. National Archives, it’s the case 99 per cent of the time.

But not all states forbid electors from going against the results, and the 2016 U.S. election saw 10 so-called faithless electors — both Democrats and Republicans — break with the popular vote.

The matter made its way to the Supreme Court and last summer. It made a ruling against rogue electors.

Who are these electors, anyway?

The U.S. Constitution states that the electors cannot be current holders of office.

They are chosen by the two parties in advance of the election, though the process varies from state to state. They are not typically high-profile individuals but rather “long-serving career-type party people,” said Wayne Petrozzi, a professor of politics at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Other than the role they play that day when they validate the ballot at the Electoral College… their role ends with the cast of the ballot and they go back to whatever it was they were doing,” he said.

Wait, 538 is an even number — can there be a tie?

It is possible, though very unlikely, that the Republican and Democrat candidates could receive 269 electoral votes each. But there’s a contingency for that.

In the event of a tie, or if no presidential candidate garners 270 electoral votes, what’s called a contingent election takes place in the House of Representatives. Instead of each legislator getting a vote, each state gets one vote only.

Criticism of the Electoral College

The electoral college remains contentious. A Pew Research poll conducted in January found that 58 per cent of Americans are in favour of changing the constitution so that the president is elected based on the popular vote instead.

While the electoral college result most often syncs up with how the majority of Americans voted, it doesn’t necessarily have to.

That was the case in 2016, when Democrat Hillary Clinton received nearly 2.9 million more votes than Republican Donald Trump.

Another common complaint is that the electoral vote distribution means that voters in smaller states tend to have more of a say in the result on a per capita basis.

“If I come from California, my vote just doesn’t count as much as your vote in Idaho,” Petrozzi said.

There are partisan implications as well, since highly populated, reliably blue states like New York and California have a weaker impact on the election results relative to their population.

Not surprisingly, the Pew poll found Democrats were largely in favour of scrapping the college and Republicans were largely against it.

For those who support the college process, the fact that states themselves have an impact is a feature, not a bug.

The electoral college is one of the institutions that reflect America’s design as a federal republic, meaning authority is divided between different levels of government, historian Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College pointed out in the journal National Affairs.

“Abolishing the Electoral College now might satisfy an irritated yearning for direct democracy, but it would also mean dismantling federalism,” he wrote.

Michael C. Maibach, who founded the Center for the Electoral College, wrote in a 2016 essay that the system “has meant that the winner build support across the nation, not in just a handful of large urban areas.”

—With files from the Associated Press

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