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US election word of the week: electoral college

 © PhotoDiscWelcome to the final post in our series looking at some of the language and terminology associated with the US electoral process. As the election finally takes place we look at a vital part of the process, the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was established by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution as a compromise between electing the President and Vice President by a popular vote of qualified citizens and their election by Congress. The College consists of 538 Electors and the candidate needs to win the votes of half of them plus one, 270 votes, in order to become President.

The number of Electors for each state is equal to the number of members of Congress to which the state is entitled, with more populous states having more Electors than less populous ones. Electors are selected by the political parties in each state and are drawn from the ranks of those who have served the party and supported the candidate. The party then puts forward a slate of Electors, so that when voters vote for a candidate on election day they are in fact selecting Electors who will vote for that candidate. In all but two states the Electors on the winning candidate’s slate will go on to be the Electors for that state, the exceptions being Nebraska and Maine which operate a proportional system.

The Electoral College never actually meets: Electors meet in their respective state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes on separate ballots for President and Vice President. Their votes are recorded and sent to Congress where they are officially counted on January 6th of the following year. Only then is the winner of the Presidential election finally announced, by the Vice President in their capacity as President of the Senate; but of course the identity of the winner generally becomes clear on election day itself.

Not always, though. While the winning candidate generally obtains a majority of the popular vote as well as a majority of the votes of the Electoral College, occasionally this does not happen. The most recent occasion was in 2000 when George W Bush eventually won the required 271 electoral college votes despite being over half a million votes behind his rival Al Gore. In that election the result only became clear after legal challenges and recounts were ended by a narrow Supreme Court decision on 12th December ending the recounts in Florida and allowing Bush to claim victory.

I have enjoyed researching and writing this series and hope you have enjoyed reading it. You can find all the other posts in the series using the tag US politics.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

1 Comment

  • So the unlikely and unexpected (by most people) happened and Donald Trump won the US presidential election. With more than 99% of votes counted, he has 290 electoral college votes to Hillary Clinton’s 230. But the result is surprising in another way, because Clinton has won the popular vote by a very large margin with, at the time of writing, over 62.5 million votes to Trump’s 61.2 million (third party candidates gained just under 6.5 million). This dramatic disparity has led, not for the first time, to some calls for the electoral system to be reformed; but while the system works to the advantage of the Republican party, which also now dominates Congress, the likelihood of any change seems vanishingly small.

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