Voters line up to cast their ballots at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center in Madison, Wisconsin

Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP
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When the President Doesn't Get the Most Votes

Donald Trump has won the election to be our next president. But so far, Hillary Clinton has won more votes. How does a candidate win the presidency without getting the most votes? By winning the Electoral College, as President-elect Trump has done.

When citizens vote, their votes are known as the “popular vote.” And so far, Hillary Clinton is winning the popular vote by more than two million votes nationwide. (Not all the official vote totals are in from every state yet.) But our presidents are not elected by the popular vote. They are actually elected by the Electoral College. Because of the way the Electoral College works, in very close races there is always a chance that a candidate could win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote.

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

The Electoral College is not a school. It’s a group of people who officially choose the president. Even though citizens see the names of the candidates on the ballots they cast for president, they are really voting for people known as electors. The electors have promised to vote for certain candidates in meetings in their states on December 19.

Each state’s number of electors is based on the total number of its senators and representatives in Congress. Each state has two senators, but the number of representatives in each state is based on the state’s population. That’s why states with large populations, like California and Texas, have the most electors. A candidate needs to win at least 270 of the 538 total electoral votes to become president.

WINNER TAKES ALL

Nearly every state has a winner-take-all rule when it comes to electors. That means that the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state gets all of its electoral votes. In other words, a candidate can get a large number of votes in a state but still not get any of its electoral votes. So if Candidate A wins 44 percent of the popular vote in a state, and Candidate B wins 45 percent of the popular vote, in most cases Candidate B gets all of that state’s electoral votes. The winner-take-all rule can help lead to a candidate winning the popular vote nationwide but losing the electoral vote—and the election.

The losing candidate may also have had big wins in states with large populations, like California. Clinton won that state by about 3.1 million votes. But she lost other states with large populations, like Florida and Pennsylvania, by slim margins. So her total votes now add up to more than Trump’s, but he won the states needed to get at least 270 electoral votes. Even though it’s important to get popular votes, that is not enough to win a presidential election on its own.

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ELECTORAL COLLEGE HISTORY

Candidates have won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College four other times in history, most recently in the 2000 election. That year, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush. The vote was so close in Florida—Bush was ahead by only about 530 votes—that there were recounts of ballots and weeks-long legal battles over more recounts. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled to stop the recounting with Bush still in the lead, and he won the presidency.

Why do we use the Electoral College? The Founding Fathers actually put it into the U.S. Constitution. It was a solution to a debate about how the president should be chosen. Some leaders wanted Americans to directly elect the president through the popular vote. But some worried that would give too much influence to states with the highest populations, and that smaller states would have less of a voice in presidential elections. Others worried that ordinary people weren’t educated or informed enough to vote. Some leaders even suggested that Congress should pick the president. The Electoral College was a compromise solution.

AN ONGOING DEBATE

The Electoral College is still being debated today. Many people think that the candidate who gets the most popular votes should be the winner. Opponents of the Electoral College also say that it causes presidential candidates to focus too much on battleground states, like Florida and Ohio, giving those states an outsized role in the election.   

But people who support the Electoral College say that it still protects states with smaller populations from being ignored by candidates, and gives those states a real say in presidential elections.

Whichever side you agree with, it seems likely that the debate over the Electoral College will last well beyond this election season.

To learn more, click here to see our special interactive infographic about the Electoral College.