From an Irish point of view, we love a good election. Hell, we love a bad election. It’s the bloodsport of it all, the circus, the transfers flying around thanks to our proportional representation system – but we get it, for the most part.
When it comes to the US elections, there’s two things at play.
The US presidential election is an interesting one, in that the candidate with the most votes from the public may not be the winner.
Considering there were around 100 million pre-election day votes cast, that’s a lot to factor in. It’s also what happened in the case of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016 with the former securing the public vote, before Trump secured the electoral college vote, ultimately landing him in the White House.
With the public vote, everyone who’s a registered voter gets to have their say on who should be president. That vote ultimately goes towards the electoral college, who determine the outcome of the vote for any state.
What is the electoral college?
The electoral college isn’t a college in the traditional sense of the word, more a group of people (electors) whose job it is to choose the next president and vice-president. Their job takes place shortly after election day itself (between polling day and inauguration day, assuming we’ve got a clear winner).
The electors for each of the 50 states aren’t the public voters; instead, it’s a limited number of people aligned to the number of lawmakers the state has in the US Congress (the number of house seats and senate seats they hold); the number would also be in line with the overall population of the state. The bigger the state, the bigger the number of electors. Hence why there’s such interest in the likes of California, Texas, Florida, New York.
There are 538 electors in total, each elector representing one electoral vote. Whoever is to be deemed elected as the president needs to secure the majority of the electoral votes, and that magic number is 270 (or 538/2 +1).
Small states, like Alaska, North Dakota, have the minimum of three electoral votes. The bigger states above really add up – California (55), Texas (38), Florida (29), New York (29). If you win those four states alone, you’re over half way to your total and you’ve still got 46 other states up to for play.
How are the electoral votes given out?
This one is fairly straight forward. The public go to vote. Let’s say the population of a given state is 100 people. 60 of them vote for candidate A and 40 of them for candidate B. Candidate A has the most public votes, and thus is deemed to have won the public end of things. The electors for that state then declare for candidate A. If that state was California, candidate A would have secured 55 electoral votes on their journey to 270.
Candidate A could have won the public vote by 99 votes to 1, but they’ll still just get the total electoral votes for that state.
The one exception to the rule (or two, technically) are the states of Maine and Nebraska. Every other state is ‘winner takes all’. For these two states, they split their electoral college votes.
Per Fairvote.org, “Since electors are awarded to each state based on the number of House seats plus the number of Senate seats (always two), the congressional district method allocated one electoral vote to each congressional district. The winner of each district is awarded one electoral vote, and the winner of the state-wide vote is then awarded the state’s remaining two electoral votes.”
So who’s the real winner?
Since the 1800s, there’s only been five presidents who lost the popular vote, but were elected to the White House – John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) and Benjamin Harrison (1888) were early runners. In 2000, George W Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore (48.4% to 47.9%) and last time out, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump to the public vote (48.2% to 46.1%).
To give you an idea of numbers, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a figure of almost 3 million (65.8m to 62.9m), but those numbers in her favour weren’t enough to win the electoral college votes. When the college met to cast their votes (the last part of the process), it was 304-227 in favour of Trump (7 votes went elsewhere out of the 538 total).