The presidential candidates have been campaigning with one number in mind: 270, the number of Electoral College votes it takes to win today’s election.
The Electoral College can be complex to understand, but it — not the popular vote — decides the outcome of the election.
More populous states get more electoral votes, said Robert Speel, associate professor of political science at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. Each state gets two more Electoral College votes than it has seats in the House of Representatives, Speel said. He said the two additional votes represent each state’s two Senate seats.
Speel said a constitutional amendment gave Washington, D.C. three electoral votes. There are 538 Electoral College votes up for grabs, Speel said, and a candidate must win 270 votes to be elected.
When millions of Americans cast their ballot today, they won’t be voting directly for the president, Speel said. Instead, they will be voting for one candidate’s slate of pledged electors, he said.
Speel said Pennsylvania’s electors meet in Harrisburg in December to cast their electoral votes. President Barack Obama won Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes in 2008, when Hall of Famer and former Penn State football player Franco Harris and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter served as pledged electors, Speel said.
Every state except Maine and Nebraska awards its Electoral College votes by winner-take-all, said Michael Berkman, Penn State professor of political science. Maine and Nebraska award their votes by congressional district, Berkman said.
Berkman said the result is that elections tend to revolve around states that are most competitive. That’s why the candidates have been focusing their attention in New Hampshire, which is a presidential battleground despite having only four Electoral College votes, he said.
Not everyone is pleased with the Electoral College system.
“The modern-day benefits are almost non-existent,” Speel said. “The drawbacks are many.”
He said the biggest issue is that someone can win the most individual votes but lose the Electoral College, which is what happened in the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
FairVote Research Fellow Andrea Levien said the split led the advocacy group to call for Electoral College reform, specifically the National Popular Voter Interstate Compact. In the compact, state legislatures sign into law that they will give their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the countrywide popular vote, Levien said. The agreement takes effect once 270 electoral votes worth of states sign on by the July before the election, she said.
“This is a way to maintain the Electoral College and not pass a constitutional amendment abolishing it, but also to make sure all Americans are treated equally,” Levien said.
So far, eight states and Washington D.C. have agreed to the arrangement, Levien said. She said the current system causes candidates to invest primarily in states where they believe they can win the electoral votes, even though they get financial backing in other states.
Speel said it would be better to just have a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. Chances of one candidate winning the Electoral College and another winning the popular vote are slim, but that outcome could increase support for the compact, Speel said.
“So far, that compact has only gotten support among Democrats,” Speel said, “but if Obama were to win the Electoral College this year while losing the popular vote, the interstate compact would probably gain support among Republicans.”