Everything you need to know about the US electoral college voting system

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How is it that a presidential candidate can win the presidency without a majority of the population’s votes? Why are pollsters obsessed with New Hampshire? Why is Ohio known as the “bellwether state”? WTAF is the electoral college voting system?

If, like many of us, you have been struggling to keep up with the daily dramas of US politics unfolding ingloriously on Twitter, then here is a stripped back guide to the most essential things to know.

What is the electoral college?

The next President of the United States is technically chosen not by voters but by the electoral college. In this context, the ‘college’ literally means a group of people with a shared purpose.

The electoral college is made up of 538 ‘electors’, and each elector represents one electoral college vote.

So, when voters go to the polls on Election Day, they are actually voting for their electors, who will in turn vote for the presidential candidate. Democratic and Republican state parties nominate their own groups of electors.

The number of electors from each state is roughly in line with the size of that state’s population. With almost 40 million residents, California is by far the most populous US state, and as such, it holds the largest number of electoral votes: 55. The second most populous state, Texas, has the second largest number of electoral votes: 38.

The minimum number of electoral college votes a state can hold is three.

How does the electoral college work?

On the ballot paper, voters indicate the presidential candidate that they support. These votes are counted, and the presidential candidate with a simple majority of these votes wins all of that state’s electoral college votes. So, for example, if the Democratic candidate won 50.1% of the vote in the state of California, then the Democratic Party of California would send its 55 electors to vote.

A candidate needs a 270 out of 538 electoral college votes to win.

There are only two states (Maine and Nebraska) which divide up their electoral college votes according to the proportion of votes each candidate receives.

Because it is the electoral college votes that ultimately decide the outcome of the election, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency without winning the national popular vote; it is more important to win a large number of states than to win any one state by a large margin.

This is what happened in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won almost 2.9 million more votes than President Trump. In fact, Clinton won as many votes across the nation as Barack Obama did when he won the presidency in 2012. However, Clinton’s votes were concentrated in fewer states, leaving her with 74 fewer electoral college votes than Trump.

Swing states

This is why presidential candidates target ‘swing states’ – states in which the popular vote could go either way – rather than trying to win as many votes as possible across the nation. Each state they win increases the number of electoral college votes they get.

The key swing states to watch in the 2020 election next month are Florida, Texas, Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina and New Hampshire. With just 4 electoral college votes, New Hampshire is the smallest of the battleground states. Everyone’s got their eye on Ohio, because in every election since 1960, Ohio’s presidential choice has gone on to win the election. Hence why it’s called the bellwether state.

This year’s election is set to take place on November 3.