The upcoming 2020 elections will go down in history, notably for a record-breaking turnout. There is power in numbers – until there isn't. In two out of the five previous presidential elections, the candidate with the most votes did not win. Confused? You're not alone.
Take 2016, for example, when Hillary Clinton received almost three million more votes from the general public than Donald Trump – and we all know how that turned out. Before that, in 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency despite having more than half a million fewer votes than Al Gore.
The reason for this is something called the Electoral College, and while it can be a fairly complicated system, we're here to break it down and make it more digestible for you, below.
Who Are Americans Voting for?
When you vote for a President, you are actually voting for your candidate's preferred electors. This group of officials makes up the Electoral College. The job of the Electoral College, which meets every four years leading up the presidential election, is to then choose the President and Vice President.
In essence, regardless of which candidate you vote for, your ballot is passed on to the designated electors in your state. And, conveniently, some states have more electors.
What Is the Electoral College and How Does It Work?
Simply put, the electors' job is to choose the President and Vice President. Each candidate has his or her own group of electors (known as a slate) in each state. Laws vary by state on how slates are chosen, but they are generally selected by the candidate’s political party in a given state.
The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. The number of electors from each state correlates with the population, and more specifically, its number of lawmakers in Congress. For example, California has the most electors with 55, and conversely, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C. have the fewest, with three each.
Each elector has one vote. The candidate who receives the majority of the electoral votes — 270 or more out of the 538 — wins the election.
It's complicated, we know. But keep in mind that most states give all of their electoral votes to whoever receives the most general votes. If a candidate wins a given state by a small margin or by a landslide, they receive all of the state's electoral votes, regardless — this is why we refer to those crucial states as "swing states." Maine and Nebraska are the only states that divvy up their electoral votes proportionate to the number of general votes a candidate receives.
Basically, your vote is worth more or less depending on where you live.
Why Do We Use This System?
The Electoral College was created by the framers of the US Constitution. As you can imagine, communication was fairly difficult back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and some areas were significantly less populated than others, both of which factored into the decision to create the Electoral College.
At its core, the Electoral College is structurally racist. It gives smaller states more of a voice, in comparison to simply going off of the popular vote; at its inception, southern states were particularly fond of the system — specifically those where slaves made up a significant portion of the population. Slaves were not allowed to vote, but they were tallied as three-fifths of a person, ultimately giving states a bigger population, and thus, more electoral votes.
It's these formerly confederate states that are historically majority-Republican, which have often decided the election in favor of less-popular candidates – most notably, Trump and Bush.
What Happens If Nobody Gets a Majority Vote?
With the United States being dominated by two parties, Democratic and Republican, it is highly unlikely the electoral votes are split equally. This has only happened once in the country's history, in 1824 when four candidates each received the same number of electoral votes. If no candidate gets the majority vote, the House of Representatives then votes to elect the President.
Please don't let this deter whether or not you vote in this election. Every single voice and vote contributes to (to paraphrase Patagonia) voting the assholes out.