Mr. Russell’s Classroom: Understanding the Electoral College

Whether you vote ahead of time or on Election Day, on November 3rd we will hear a lot about the Electoral College. But do you know what it is and why it is used to decide the winner of the presidential race? Winthrop University Political Science Professor Dr. John Holder joined Mary King for Mr. Russell’s Classroom.

“We the people…” sounds familiar, right? It’s the start of the Preamble to the US Constitution, and it’s where we must start to understand the founding fathers’ heart behind the Electoral College and not just a popular vote.

“The people who wrote the Constitution wanted to have a president who appealed to the whole country, not just one section, not just one region,” said Dr. Holder, professor of political science. “You can’t just pile upvotes in New York or North Carolina. You have to spread your support out to show that you are a nationally popular candidate.”

So, the goal is to win the electoral votes of each state. But how many votes does each state get?

“Each state has a number of electors equal to its total number of senators plus representatives.

So, North Carolina has two senators and 13 representatives which equal 15 electoral votes.  South Carolina has two senators, seven representatives, which is nine electoral votes,” said Dr. Holder. “Each state has two senators, and states with more people have more representatives. North Carolina is bigger than South Carolina, so North Carolina gets more electoral votes.”

Add all the states up and there are 538 Electoral votes. Whoever receives at least 270 votes wins. Why 270?

“270 is the majority and you have to get a majority to win,” said Dr. Holder. “538 divided by 2 is 269, plus one is 270—that is the majority of the electoral vote.”

As we know, a candidate who wins the Electoral College has not always won the popular vote. While you may hear some chatter about changing what determines the outcome of the election, Dr. Holder does not think we would see that happen in the near future.

“You’d have to amend the Constitution because the Constitution sets up the Electoral College,” said Holder. “So, if you want to do it differently, you have to put in a constitutional amendment and that’s very difficult. That’s two/thirds of each house of Congress and three/fourths of the states have to ratify it, which is very, very difficult. That is why we have only had 27 amendments in more than 200 years. So, I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.”

Something interesting Dr. Holder noted though for the 2020 election year, is that typically the national media can call each state for a candidate based on exit polling. However, with so many people voting by mail or ahead of time, he says if the media only polls people who vote on Election Day, they would not be able to call the election that night. That is why it could take much longer to determine a winner in this election year.

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