Electoral college | American civics | US History | Khan Academy

Electoral college | American civics | US History | Khan Academy

August 20, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


In the US, we
don’t directly vote for our president
or vice president. Instead, we use something
called the Electoral College. So when you show up to vote on
Election Day– and an election day will happen in November
of an election year. And it could happen as
early as November 2, and it could happen
as late as November 8. And it’s going to be the
Tuesday after the first Monday in the month. So it’ll be November 2 if the
first Monday is November 1, and it’ll be November 8 if the
first Monday is November 7. And so you go on
election day, and you will see a ballot that will have
the presidential candidates. It’ll have their parties there. It will have the vice
presidential candidates, and you’ll vote for one of them. But in actuality, when you
are voting for Candidate A– and let’s say Candidate A is a
Democrat– you’re not actually voting for Candidate
A. You’re actually voting for a slate
of electors who promise to vote
for that candidate. And it isn’t in most
states proportional based on what
proportion of people vote for one
candidate or another. In most of the states, except
for Maine and Nebraska, it is a winner take all system. So what do I mean by that? So right here, you have the
breakdown of the United States, by state, of how many electors
words each state gets. And the number of
electors is essentially the number of congressmen
that that state has. For example, California
has two senators. Every state has two senators. California has two senators
and 53 congressmen. And those of you who aren’t
familiar with it, every state gets two senators, and the
House of Representatives is dictated by population. California is a huge state, two
senators, 53 representatives. You have Texas, two senators
and it has 32 representatives. You go to Louisiana,
you have two senators and you have seven
representatives. So the electors
per state is based on the total number
of congressmen, so the number of senators plus
the number of representatives. That’s what gives us 55 in
California, nine in Louisiana, 34 in Texas. But what’s interesting
here is it’s a winner take all
system in every state except for Nebraska and Maine. In every other state, if I
get 51% of the vote in Texas, I get all 34 electoral votes
in the Electoral College. If I get 51% or even
if I get 50.1%, just a slight majority of
the votes in California, I will get all of the
votes for California in the Electoral College. And in general, or in
actuality, the president is whoever gets the majority
of the electoral votes in the United States. And right now,
that threshold is, or that magic number–
you could think of it that way– is 270
Electoral College votes. If no candidate is able to hit
this threshold of 270 Electoral College votes, then it
will go to the US Congress. And in the US Congress,
it’s interesting, because it isn’t one
congressman, one vote. Or actually, I should say the
US House of Representatives. It’ll go to the US House
of Representatives. And it won’t be one
representative, one vote. What will happen is
the representatives in each state will
vote together, and each state will
get only one vote. So in a tiebreaker,
the big states really, really lose out,
because in a tiebreaker, Texas will get only one vote. California will get one vote. And Alaska will get one
vote, and Rhode Island will get one vote. So Rhode Island will have just
as much say in a tiebreaker as California will over
who will be president. Then they’ll just keep
voting until someone gets a simple majority
of the votes by state. Now, there’s one
other twist here. It’s that the District of
Columbia– Washington, DC right over here– in Congress
gets no representatives. They have no senators, and
they have no representatives. But they do get
three electoral votes when it comes to deciding
who is going to be president. Now, you might already
be getting a sense here that maybe this winner
take all system might lead to some distortions, and the
biggest distortion of all is you can imagine a candidate
who wins the popular vote and loses the election or
loses in the Electoral College. And you might think, well,
gee, how can that happen? And the way to think about
it is, imagine someone– let’s say someone
gets– with the states that they win, they
get huge majorities. So let’s say there’s a
conservative candidate, and he or she gets
huge majorities in the states they win. 80% in Texas. They get 80% in Mississippi. They get 80% in Oklahoma. The get huge majorities in
the states that they win. And the states that they
lose, they barely lose. And they barely lose
those really big states. So let’s say in Florida, that
candidate gets 49% of the vote. So they had a lot
of votes in Florida, but not enough to win it. The other person,
let’s say, gets 51%. All 27 go to the
other candidate. Let’s say the same thing
happens in California. That candidate got
49% of the vote. The opponent, let’s say,
gets 51% of the vote. All 55 go to California. You get no credit for that 49%. You get no credit for
that 49% in Florida. So in this situation,
this candidate might actually end
up with the majority, barely losing the
states they lose, and trouncing the other
candidate in the states that they win, but despite
that, actually getting fewer Electoral College votes. Now, there’s a few
clarifications I want to make, especially ones that have
confused me in the past. One of them is because you have
the same number of Electoral College votes as you have US
representatives plus senators, there’s kind of this feeling
that maybe each district sends its own elector
to the state capital to decide who the president is. And it doesn’t
quite work that way. So this right here is
the panel of electors for Louisiana in 2008. And you can see right over
here, each of the parties have their own
slate of electors. And these are either decided
by the party themselves, or they’re decided by
the candidates’ teams. And even though you have
someone here for each district and then you have these
at-large candidates, it’s not like– let’s
take a situation. This actually
happened in Louisiana, where John McCain got a
majority of the state. So John McCain and Sarah Palin
got a majority of the state. It’s not the case
that– let’s say in the second district,
which is New Orleans, let’s say that the second
district, a majority of the people actually
voted for Barack Obama. It is not the case that
Kenneth Garrett in 2008 would have been
the chosen elector. Even though they divide
things by district and they have these
at-large candidates, it is actually a
state-wide election. So they don’t look at who
won each of the districts. They just say, look,
John McCain and Sarah Palin won the entire state. So all of these
electors are the ones that are going to go to the
state capital in December and decide who they want
to pledge their vote for. So even if Obama won just the
Second Congressional District, that’s not how it’s thought
about in the Electoral College. It’s just a state-wide election. McCain got the
majority of the state. All of the electors will be
chosen from McCain’s slate or from the Republican
Party slate. And then they’re going to
go to the state capital. In the case of Louisiana,
it would be Baton Rouge. And they will decide who they
want to pledge their votes to. And all of the electors
in all of the states go to their designated location,
usually the state capital, on the same day. And usually that is
some day in December. And they pick the president,
although by that point, everyone knows who
the president is, because the actual election
was in early November. And people know which
way the votes went and which way the actual
Electoral College votes went. Now, I did mention that
there are two states that don’t do this winner take
all, Nebraska and Maine. And in Nebraska and
Maine, when you go vote, it really is by
congressional district. Nebraska has three
congressional districts. So in those three congressional
districts, if one of them goes to the Democrat and
two goes to the Republican, then they’ll have one
electoral vote for the Democrat and two for the Republican. And then they have
two at-large votes that are decided the same
way, in kind of the winner take all basis. If you get 51% of the
vote on a statewide basis, you get the two at-large votes. Same thing for
Maine, but Maine has two congressional districts. So two of the congressional
districts could go either way. And then the at-large are
based on a state-wide vote. Now, you could imagine the
other kind of unfair thing here, other than the popular
vote versus the Electoral College vote. You could imagine it makes
some states better represented than others. So if you just divide population
by the number of electors, you see the larger
states, each elector is representing many,
many more people. This is California right here. Each elector is representing
over 600,000 people. And in the smaller states–
this is Wyoming right here– each elector is representing
under 200,000 people. So in Wyoming,
people are getting kind of three times the
representation as they would in California on
a per capita vote. But what makes it even a
little bit more skewed, because it’s winner take all
and the candidates aren’t silly and they want to make
sure that they spend their money and their visits
and their time in the most leveragable way, it actually
creates this weird scenario where candidates
will often ignore huge parts of the population. And they ignore them
because those huge parts of the population are unlikely
to swing one way or the other. So for example,
California is very reliably Democratic and Texas
is very reliably Republican. So this right here– this is
a fascinating graph, at least in my mind– it shows where
George W. Bush and John Kerry spent the last five
weeks of the 2004 election. Let me close that right there. This top graph shows where
they actually spent their time, so each of these
little hands here is a visit in those
final five weeks. And each of these
dollar signs is a million dollars spent on
marketing and advertising, on ads and whatever
else, in those states. And you can see, California and
Texas, the two biggest states, they didn’t spend enough
money to the threshold to get dollar a
sign written there. So they didn’t even
spend $1,000,000 on these huge states. They only had a few
visits to California, and Texas had no visits
in the final five weeks. So what happens
is that candidates spend a disproportionate
amount of attention and money in the states that are
more likely to swing one way or another. So the people in
Florida or in Ohio– so this is Ohio and Florida–
got a ton more attention, especially on a per person
basis, than the people in Texas did.