In the US presidential election, you would think that the Americans would elect their president. But, strictly speaking, they don’t vote for him directly. This has far-reaching consequences.
Hillary Clinton found in a particularly painful way that the presidential election does not always win the person with the most votes. Utterly surprising, the Democrat lost to scandal-ridden real estate mogul and outsider Donald Trump in 2016. Even though nearly 2.9 million Americans voted more for her than for him. That made things really bitter for Clinton.
The case shows the peculiarity of the American electoral system: the president is not directly elected by the people. Who the so-called Popular vote wins, that is, gets the most votes in the United States in general, is observed with interest. But actually it is not relevant at all.
The Electoral College is crucial
The president becomes the one who gathers the majority of the electorate behind him – i.e. the majority in the so-called Electoral College owns, the electoral body. Each of the 50 states and the capital Washington D.C. can send a certain number of voters to this body. How many there are is roughly based on population: as many seats as a state in Congress, so many voters. Sparsely populated states like Alaska send three voters, while Florida sends 29.
In most states, the principle applies: the winner gets all electoral votes – the winner gets it all. For example, the candidate who gets the most votes in Florida gets the support of all 29 Florida voters – even if he narrowly won there. Only in the states of Maine and Nebraska are voters divided between the two candidates according to a complicated key.
In this way, a total of 538 voters will be elected to the Electoral College on the election date. Whoever gathers more than half the electorate behind him – at least 270. If there is a stalemate, that is, both candidates have 269 voters, the US House of Representatives must elect the president. However, this has only happened once before, in 1824. John Quincy Adams then became president.
A very controversial, unusual body
The Electoral College is a very unusual body. In fact, it never comes together in one place. Only the voters of each state meet in their capitals on a specified date after the vote. There, they sign and certify their election on a list and send it sealed to Washington, to the President of the Senate, who is also a Vice President in the US.
The Electoral College is also highly controversial for the results it produces. But also for the effects on the political culture of the US. In 2016, the US electoral system resulted in Donald Trump clearly outperforming Hillary Clinton with 232 electoral votes and 306 electoral votes – even though she had clearly won the popular votes. This is the case four more times in US history, including the election between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000.
Because a candidate can become president without a majority of the population, critics attribute a democratic deficit to the electoral system. This is reinforced by the fact that the winner-takes-all procedure in almost all states means that votes for the ultimately defeated candidate have no effect whatsoever in the end.
Fierce battle for the swing states
Advocates of the Electoral College, on the other hand, argue that it takes into account the federal nature of the United States and that even low-populated states have a say. Moreover, it provides unambiguous and clear majority relationships.
What the electoral system also produces, however, is a bitter struggle for the so-called Swing states or Battleground States. This is the name given to the states in which there is no traditional clear majority for both Republicans and Democrats. The race in the swing states is always more or less open to both parties. And that means that both sides will focus their election campaign on these few states rather than those states where it is clear in advance that they will vote with a majority for the Democrats (eg California) or Republicans (eg Kansas).
Donald Trump and Joe Biden will therefore be much more concerned with the concerns in small Swing State Wisconsin (population 5.8 million) until the November 3 election than with those of the nearly 40 million Californians.