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How Does the Electoral College Work in Deciding the U.S. Presidential Election?

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The U.S. Electoral College, an entity made up of 538 delegates representing the nation’s states, plans to ratify Democratic as president candidate Joe Biden in the November 3rd presidential election on Monday, despite attempts by President Donald Trump to contest his election on charges of alleged voter fraud.

The U.S. Constitution gives the last word on who gets the White House every four years to this unique body, which arouses passions among detractors and defenders alike.

What is it?

The concept of the Electoral College is found in Article II of the Constitution resulting from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, ratified in 1788.

It is basically a body composed of a number of members elected by the states equal to the total number of Senators and Congresspeople in the U.S. House of Representatives from each state.

Thus, this mechanism is composed of 100 delegates that represent the total number of Senators -two for each of the 50 states in the country- plus another 435 pledged delegates (equal to the number as legislators in the House plus three for the capital city), a number that in 1929 was adjusted taking into account population growth.

Since 1961, when the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, three delegates were added from the District of Columbia, where Washington, D.C., is located.

States with more (and fewer) representatives

California, with a population of nearly 40 million, has 55 delegates, followed by Texas with 38, New York and Florida with 29 each, and Pennsylvania and Illinois with 20.

On the opposite end are Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Vermont, Wyoming and the District of Columbia, with three pledges each.

For a candidate for President to be elected, he or she must have a minimum of 270 of the 538 votes in the Electoral College.

The Road to the White House

When Americans go to the polls in presidential elections, their vote does not actually go to their preferred candidate, but serves to elect their state’s pledges to the Electoral College.

Hence, while a presidential hopeful may be favored by the popular vote, it all depends on how many delegates he/she secures in the Electoral College.

Today, as customary since 1868, in most states the candidate favored by the popular vote “takes it all,” i.e., all delegates are assigned to him/her.

But Nebraska and Maine have institute a mechanism whereby they give two votes to the top candidate and the other three are distributed among the winner of each of the three districts into which these two states are divided.

The swing states

The “swing states”, which are often the undecided ones with a high number of delegates in the Electoral College, can make the difference in determining the winner in a scenario where the margin between the candidates is very narrow.

Although the states considered key in each election are not always the same, their role is crucial: if a candidate succeeds, even by the slightest difference, in outperforming his or her rival in one of these places, he or she can take over the number of delegates at stake and move ahead in the numbers of pledges, independently from the national popular vote the other candidate might have obtained,

An example of this was the 2016 election, in which the current president and Republican candidate, Donald Trump, won.

The Republican leader won with 304 Electoral College votes, despite being defeated in the popular vote by his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, by 2.9 million votes.

The key? Trump’s victory in states like Wisconsin, which brings in 10 votes; Michigan, which brings in 16; and Pennsylvania, which allowed him to add 20 electoral votes. In practice, these states represented a difference of less than 80,000 popular votes that decided the winner.

The delegates have the last say

Delegates to the Electoral College are ultimately appointed by the same political parties that prepare their own lists in the months prior to the elections, which cannot include federal officials or anyone elected by popular vote.

Voting for Electoral College pledges takes place on the Monday following the second Wednesday of December in their own states. This year it takes place on December 14th.

Although they are not required to vote for the winning candidate of the popular vote, there is the so-called ‘Interstate National Popular Vote Pact’, which 11 states and the District of Columbia have joined to support in their delegations to the Electoral College the candidate getting the most nationwide votes.

Critics and advocates

The New York Times published an editorial in December 2016 against this indirect process.

“It’s time to end the Electoral College,” The New York Times demanded.

“The Electoral College, which is written into the Constitution, is more than a vestige of the founding era; it is a living symbol of America’s original sin. When slavery was the law of the land, a direct popular vote would have hurt the southern states, with their large, disadvantaged populations.” they stated.

Aware that the abolition of the Electoral College would require complex constitutional reform, The New York Times then proposed as an “elegant solution” that all states adopt the interstate National Popular Vote Pact.

On the other side of the issue, Professor Allen Guelzo warns in an article entitled “In Defense of the Electoral College” that ending that body “would also mean dismantling federalism”.

Furthermore, he defended this mechanism “as a brake on too-powerful presidents” who “could use a popular majority to claim that they were authorized to speak for the people against Congress.”

And of that,” he argued, “we may have much more to fear than the Electoral College.

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