How is the US President Elected ?


Ludwik Kowalski, Ph.D. (see Wikipedia)

Professor Emeritus, M.S.U.


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Elections are most often decided by popular vote; the candidate who receives the most votes is declared the winner. But the US presidential election is different. The purpose of this short note is to simply describe my understanding of the US voting system, both for myself and for those who might also be interested.


Suppose that two presidential candidates, X and Y, compete in an election. In many countries one could win via the popular vote, that is, by receiving the majority of votes cast in the entire country.  In the US, on the other hand, one becomes president via the so-called "electoral vote." Winning via the popular vote is not sufficient.


What is the electoral vote? The answer has to do with the fact that the country is subdivided into many states. To simplify, let us assume that there only 7 states (A, B, C, etc.), and that the results of an election are as in the list below. The first two columns show how many electoral votes are allocated to each state, on the basis of the size of its population. The last two columns show the results of popular elections (millions of votes), in these seven states.

====================||=================================================                                                                           POPULAR VOTES       

State and # of electoral votes MILLIONS received by X         MILLIONS received by            Y


   A*                    5                                                 22                                                  3

   B                      4                                                 4                                                   5

   C                      9                                                 9                                                   13

   D*                    6                                                 12                                                   3

   E                   14                                                  8                                                   23

   F                      6                                                 2                                                  3

   G*                 21                                                 11                                                 8


                                                                  TOTAL 68                                      TOTAL 58


In most countries such an outcome would make X the winner. Why? Because X received more individual votes (68) than Y (58). In the USA, by contrast, the same popular vote results would make Y the president, on the basis of the following reasoning:


a)  Candidate X won by popular vote in states A, D, and G. This translates into:   5+6+21=32 electoral votes for X.


b)        Candidate Y, however, won the popular vote in states B, C, E and F. This translates into: 4+9+14+6=33 electoral votes for Y.


c)        According to the US constitution, the winner is the candidate who receives the highest number of electoral votes rather than the highest number of popular votes.


Here are related items of information. The total number of electoral votes is now 538. To win in a  presidential election a candidate must receive at least 270 electoral votes; to receive only 269 is not enough. In the 2000 election (Bush versus Gore) candidate Gore obtained more popular votes than his opponent, Bush. But his total number of electoral votes was slightly lower than 270. That is how Bush became president.                                                       


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