The Electoral College and why getting the most popular votes doesn’t necessarily mean winning the race for the White House

The Electoral College and why getting the most popular votes doesn’t necessarily mean winning the race for the White House The Electoral College and why getting the most popular votes doesn’t necessarily mean winning the race for the White House

November 3, 20202 min read
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It’s time for the U.S. presidential election, and as people have lined up to vote and millions have voted by mail – it’ll all come down to a state-by-state battle for victory.


Newscasters will focus on the key “battleground” states because ultimately electoral success isn’t just about getting the most votes, it is about securing the strategically important votes too.


America’s presidential election is based on the Electoral College. This system has been in place since 1787 and recently two UC San Diego experts were asked to break it all down for viewers in California.



"When you fill out a ballot for president, you’re not actually voting for the candidate whose name you see. In California, you’re actually voting for 55 people who you may have never heard of, a “slate of electors,” who turn around and cast the real votes from the state Capitol in December.
It dates back to 1787. The Founding Fathers were split on the mechanics of how to elect a president, and “this was the thing that they could all agree on,” said UC San Diego political science professor Daniel Butler.
The Electoral College was a compromise between the framers who were leery of giving direct power to the masses and others who opposed having Congress elect the president. ABC News – San Diego


Having Congress elect the president “felt a lot like Parliament, a lot like what the British did, which is not what they were going to do,” Butler said.


Article II of the Constitution lays out how it works. Each state gets a number of electors equal to the size of their congressional delegation (their senators and U.S. representatives). California has 55 electors, the most of any state. ABC News – San Diego


Today, it takes 270 Electoral College votes to secure the presidency. "I think what frustrates many people about the Electoral College is that that majority winner in the popular vote isn’t always who captures the majority in the Electoral College,” said UC San Diego political science chair Thad Kousser.


In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump became just the fifth person in history to win the Electoral College and lose the popular vote, out of 58 presidential elections. It also happened in 2000 in the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore." ABC News – San Diego



Kousser says for all the recent controversy surrounding the electoral college, there are some major benefits.


If you are a reporter covering the 2020 election, then let our experts help.

Thad Kousser, professor and chair of political science at UC San Diego, is an expert in the areas American state and national politics. He is available to speak with media about this topic. To arrange an interview– simply click on his icon to book a time today. Daniel Butler and other political scientists at UC San Diego can be reached via Inga Kiderra, ikiderra AT ucsd DOT edu.



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  • Thad Kousser
    Thad Kousser Professor and Chair of Political Science

    Thad Kousser specializes in American state and national politics, with particular focus on California, and government reform.

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