News broke on Thursday that noted political strategist Larry Sabato is predicting Hillary Clinton will win 352 Electoral College votes. But what, exactly, does that mean? How does the Electoral College actually work?
1. 538 Total Votes – 270 To Win
- The 538 votes are equal to the total number of representatives in the House (435) plus the total number of senators (100) plus three votes for Washington, D.C. (which is not represented in the House or Senate).
- Each state’s Electoral College votes are equal to the number of representatives they have in the House plus two for their senators. This means more populous states have more Electoral College votes.
- A candidate needs 270 to win because half of 538 is 269. One more than that equals a majority.
- The number of total representatives in the House can change over time as total population increases. The total number has been 538 since 1964.
2. Could A Candidate Win All 538 Votes?
- It is theoretically possible for a candidate to win all 538 votes. Since 1964, two candidates have come close: Richard Nixon in 1972 (520 votes) and Ronald Reagan in 1984 (525 votes).
- However, there is a generally accepted breakdown of votes, as shown in the chart below. This chart shows the historical trends of state voting patterns, and it’s why some states are not even considered to be in play in most elections:
- As you can see, Democratic candidates start out at a mathematical advantage, since over 200 Electoral College votes are assumed to go to the Democrat. There are enough toss up states (often referred to as swing states), though, that no election is a given from the get-go. There are 12 states that are considered swing states — those are the ones in the middle three rows of the chart above. Five of them tend to lean Democratic and three tend to lean Republican.
- The chart above also makes it clear why, in any presidential election, we hear so much about Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They are the swing states with the highest number of electoral votes.
3. Do All The Electoral College Votes In Each State Go To The Winner In That State?
- Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia are winner-take-all states; whoever wins the popular vote in the state wins all the Electoral College votes
- In Maine (four total votes) and Nebraska (five total votes), the winner of each Congressional district wins the vote in that district. The two extra votes – representing the two senators – go to the overall winner of the popular vote in the state.
4. Can An Elector Choose To Vote Against Their State?
- Twenty-four states have laws against an elector voting against their state’s popular vote, which is known as faithlessness.
- Though the other states do not have laws against it, electors vote with their state 99 percent of the time. As soon as the popular vote count is determined in a state, that state’s Electoral College votes are awarded to the winning candidate, despite the fact that the electors do not actually cast their ballots until eight days after the election.
5. Who Are The Electors?
- The electors are real people, chosen by the political parties in their state. They can be state-elected officials, leaders in their party, or voters with close ties to the political parties.
- Though all 538 never meet as one group, the electors go to their state’s capital on the second Wednesday after the election to vote. By this time, of course, the winner has already been declared.
As far as the 2016 election is concerned, it’s a pretty safe bet at this point that Hillary Clinton will win all the “solidly Democratic,” “likely Democratic,” and “lean Democratic” states. Those states alone would put her at 272 electoral votes. She is also poised to win several of the non-leaning toss up states, and is even competitive in some of the historically Republican states. Trump’s chances of garnering 270 electoral votes are, as of now, almost mathematically non-existent.
So take a deep breath and relax a bit, but remember that it’s still important to vote.
Featured Image via screenshot from Hillary Clinton Instagram