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What voters need to know about the Electoral College tonight

On the last day to vote many still have questions about how the president is elected, so here is a brief overview of the electoral college, battleground states, and what it takes to win the presidency.

By Solomon Smith, Political News Editor

President Donald. J. Trump and former vice president Joe Biden are in the final throes of the election, but many people are still unsure about how the process works. The popular vote, where citizens vote for local and national officials, is not the only component for deciding who is elected for president. There is also the Electoral College, a system in which electors representing the population, vote for the president. In recent years, the space between the electors’ vote and the popular vote has expanded to instances where the president of the United States has won the Electoral College vote but lost the popular vote. Here is how that might happen.

The Electoral College is baked-in

The Electoral College has always been a part of the American presidential election system, embedded in the Constitution itself. Article II, Section 1, Clauses 2 and 3 explicitly describes how the president is chosen. It states:

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress; but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States shall be appointed an Elector.”

It may appear strange now but at the Constitution’s inception, in 1787, the idea that only a few landed, educated, wealthy white men should be responsible for choosing the nation’s leaders was a commonly accepted idea. That was how most of Congress was chosen, according to the United States House of Representatives Arts and Archives site.

The Electoral College is also, in many ways, a remnant of the three-fifths compromise, a concession for slave owning states with larger populations (due to slaves) wanting more representation, but not wanting to count slaves as persons with rights and votes. The process has expanded over the years but not much has changed. There are 538 electors and 270 total are needed to win the presidency. Party members choose their electors, with the assumption those electors will vote the way the party wants (more on that later). These are the people citizens cast their ballot for. In all but two states it is all or none; the candidate who wins the state majority wins all the electors. 

As the nation began to grow and move toward a more egalitarian system, the idea that the people can vote directly for their leadership became steadily more popular.

So why then did this not affect the office of the president? Simply put, it is difficult to change the Constitution. As a living document, the Constitution was designed to be malleable, but only just so. Changes were expected to be rare and the system requires massive support. To change the Constitution both houses of Congress must win a two-thirds majority, and then it must be ratified (accepted) by a two thirds majority in each state’s legislative house, according to an overview of the process on the United States House of Representatives Archives. Getting that much agreement on anything is difficult, and this is where many of the amendments have stalled. The Equal Rights Amendment of 1978 has yet to be ratified by enough states.

Swing states hang heavily over the rest

Moving to a popular vote system has been brought up before but never gotten far. Most swing states, which are often majority white and Republican, are not willing to give up the power being a swing state provides - which is substantial. 

Because swing states oscillate between the two parties they receive the most attention and the most visits by the candidates. They have a large say over who the next president will be. Candidates spend their time working the swing states because they are often the only ones in play. Swing states are not necessarily representative of the country. Senator Elizbeth Warren pointed this out during her 2019 presidential run and wrote an article about the problem on her site.

“But right now, presidential candidates don’t even go to places like Mississippi, where I was last night, because it’s a deep red state,” said Warren. “They also don’t go to deep blue states like California or Massachusetts because they’re not presidential battlegrounds.”

This is how a party that is basically minority in the country, manages to be the ruling party and has led to a lot more presidents gaining their office, despite not actually winning the popular vote. The ones most Americans cast. Electorates can defy the popular vote, but most states do not allow this. There is no real way to force electors to vote with the popular vote.

So what now

As it stands, Southern and Republican heavy states are dependent upon the swing state mechanism, which works best in the Electoral College, to hold on to power. The battleground states for this election are Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania according to the Washington Post and, a respected news and political polling site. They are in a state of flux for several reasons and will be watched closely as the votes are counted in the coming days or weeks. A popular vote in today’s America is moving away from the traditionally white Christian conservative majority, and according to the Economic Policy Institute, the majority of America could be people of color by 2032. 

This election has a small possibility of ending in a tie depending on how many electors opt to vote for Trump against the states wishes and how many he wins outright. Even though slight, a tie would mean that the vote is decided in the Senate where Trump has a wider lead and could end up with a second term because of the Electoral College. 

Americans will just have to wait until all the votes are tallied to see who electors voted for and whether the country gets another president who did not win the popular vote.

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