Who Really Elects the American President?

With less than a week to go until the US elections, this article demystifies the US elections process, the importance of swing states, and why it’s only a group of 538 people that formally elects the next US president - not the US citizens.

Who Really Elects the American President?

With less than a week to go until the US elections, this article demystifies the US elections process, the importance of swing states, and why it’s only a group of 538 people that formally elects the next US president - not the US citizens.

American citizens don’t select the president. The electoral college does. It’s not the November election that matters; it’s the December election that formally elects the president of the US.

Two presidents have been elected recently via the Electoral College despite having lost the popular vote. Donald Trump and George Bush won the presidency, even though the majority of people in the US voted for their democratic opponents - Hilary Clinton and Al Gore.

The Electoral College Is a Group of 538 Individuals, Who Represent Their State

The electoral college is made up of 538 people, 100 senators, 435 representatives and three from the District of Columbia (equivalent to the same number of electors as the least populated state). It is the votes of these 538 that will formally determine the next president of the US.

The next president will be the person who secures greater than 50% share (270) of the electoral college vote. It gets complicated if no one has a majority, i.e. the 270 votes, but given the dominance of two parties in the US, this is extremely unlikely to happen.

The electoral college was designed back in the 1700s, as a way to give each state influence in determining the President. This was crucial to get the slave states and low population states to buy into the constitution as part of the union.

The electoral college system also had a minor benefit. The quickest way to pass information in the 1700s was on horseback. It was practical for each state to vote for electors, who then rode to Washington to vote on behalf of their state. This reasoning is perhaps outdated as information now travels in seconds through fibre optic cables.

Without going into too much of the history of the electoral college system, there are still a lot of arguments both for and against having an electoral college. This discussion may be another topic for another day.

The Electoral College Votes Are Primarily Determined by Population Size

Each state receives a certain number of votes, based on the population size. Larger states receive a larger number of votes. California (55 votes), Texas (38 votes), Florida (29 votes) and New York (29 votes). While smaller states by population size receive smaller votes. Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming receive three votes each.

A census occurs every ten years in the US and each time the census occurs, the number of votes that each state gets is adjusted to reflect its new proportional population. Some states may receive slightly more or slightly less electoral college votes, depending on their proportional population size. The next census that occurred in 2020 will give slightly different amount of electoral vote per state, for elections occurring between 2022 and 2030.

The December Elections Are More Important Than the November Elections

In the November elections, American citizens cast their votes and these votes appoint the group of people forming the electoral college in each state.

In December, it’s these electors that cast the votes for who will become the president of the United States.

Generally, these electors are obliged to vote for the presidential candidate in line with the wishes of their state. But there is a quirk in the US law that means that these electors aren’t required to vote for president as their state citizens want them to. They’re free to vote however they want, and 165 times in the past, electors have voted against the wishes of the people who elected them in the first place. These people are known as faithless electors.

The legality of faithless electors was recently challenged in the US Supreme Court in July 2020. The court that decided that states are free to enforce laws that bind electors to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state.

Most States Give All Electoral College Votes to the Candidate That Wins the State

The best way to understand how the electoral college votes are decided is through an example. For a state like California, the candidate that wins the popular vote (i.e. the majority of the votes in California) will get all 55 eligible electoral votes, irrespective of how slim the margin may have been. The losing candidate gets nothing. In this sense, there is no proportional representation of electoral college votes at the state level.

Almost all states (including the district of Columbia) use this approach by giving the winning candidate in their state all electoral college votes. The only exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where two electors are assigned like with all the other 48 states, and the remaining electors are allocated based on the plurality of votes in each congressional district.

The electoral college system makes US politics and voting mechanism far more interesting. The popular vote (the candidate with the most votes nationwide) is meaningless. And in two of the last five election cycles, the candidate with the most votes nationwide did not go on to become president.

The electoral college system means that you’re better off targeting the votes of the states with the largest electoral votes. If you win in Texas, Florida and New York, you’ll win 96 electoral votes. Even if a candidate won in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, West Virginia – they’d only get 31 electoral votes from these eight states.

However, the smaller states shouldn’t be ignored. In a close election, those three electoral votes from Vermont could make all the difference between who becomes President and Vice President, and who gets forgotten in the history books.

National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC)

The electoral college system is fundamental to the US constitution and cannot be changed without an amendment to the constitution. Given a change of the constitution is unlikely any time soon, a group of states are looking to take matters into their own hands, through the NPVIC.

The NPVIC is an agreement amongst 15 states and the District of Columbia to award all of their electoral college votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in all 50 states and DC. The purpose of this agreement is to ensure the presidential candidate with the most votes nationwide ultimately ends up in the white house.

The 15 states who have signed up to this agreement (including DC), have 196 electoral college votes. It’s 36% of the total electoral college votes and 73% of the 270 votes needed to give the agreement legal force.

Because of Safe States, the Swing States Are the Target of Political Parties

Some states have a long history of voting for the democratic candidate (e.g. California, Massachusetts, New York and Illinois). In contrast, others have a long history of voting for the Republican candidate (e.g. Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia). These are known as safe states.

A monkey running for president in California is likely to beat the Republican candidate… I’m not even joking here. And the same can be said for Republicans in Alabama or Mississippi. Democrats have absolutely zero chance of winning these states.

As the name suggests, swing states don’t have a defined history of voting for the candidate of one party over another. Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania are some of the traditional swing states. In the last four election cycles, these states have twice provided the electoral votes for a democratic candidate and twice again for a republican candidate.

Swing states is the reason why Florida is always key to US presidential elections. It's the swing state with the most electoral college votes, which gives it the biggest influence in determining the next US President.

In fact, since 1928, whoever wins the electoral votes in Florida was sworn in as the president of the US. The only two exceptions were John F Kennedy in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992 (although Clinton won Florida in the 1996 election). So if you win Florida, you have a very good chance of becoming president. The Economist currently forecast Biden’s chances of winning at 77%.

District of Columbia and the Territories Are Treated Slightly Differently

DC isn’t a US state. The clue is in the name - it’s a District of Columbia. It was deliberately set aside not to be a state so that the capital of the country will be free from local politics. It resulted in people living in DC not having a vote in determining who the president of the US will be. However, an amendment to the constitution in 1961 changed this, giving residents in DC a vote. The amendment allowed DC to have the same number of electoral votes (3) as the least populous state (Wyoming).

However, US territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands, aren’t given any electoral votes, meaning they have no say in who the next US president will be. No constitutional amendment to recognise them (like with DC) has been made - Strange because they’re part of the US and their residents (4.4m people) are US citizens in every right. In a practical sense, these territories are just like DC.

US residents who move abroad (or anywhere else on the planet but these territories) can send a postal vote to the last state they were a resident. However, the quirk in the law means that US residents who move to one of these territories will lose their right to a vote. Given the fact that American astronauts can vote from space, this makes these US territories the only place in the entire universe where American residents are not allowed to vote for the US president.


The US political system is so simple, yet so complex. The electoral college system is a form of proportional representation, but it disproportionately gives power to the swing states, during Presidential elections.

It’s also this system that sometimes allows the less popular candidate nationally to win the race to the white house. Without a change to the constitution anytime soon, the NPVIC is the best chance the country has in electing the most popular candidate nationwide.

Subscribe below to receive new post updates the minute they are published. You will also receive my weekly newsletter, where I share interesting articles, books, quotes and lessons that I have learnt during the past week.