What is the Electoral College in the United States?

October 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

Every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters face the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political. This time, no doubt because of the American president, more friends and colleagues from the United States and abroad have contacted me than ever before. Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else.  The Electoral College is one issue that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years.  Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market, where the Biden and Trump campaigns are dominating broadcasts and headlines, this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.

Because we are in a unique election cycle, and Election Day will be here before we know it, I decided to humbly put my legal background and my passion for history to work to benefit the interpreter community. I do not intend to defend the American system, or convince anybody of its benefits. I am only providing historical, political, and legal facts so we can understand such a complicated system in a way that if needed, our rendition from the physical or virtual booth is a little easier. This is not a political post, and it will not turn into one.

Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on the first Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in December to cast the electoral votes from that state, in the case of 48 states, for the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on Election Day. Other two states, since 1972 Maine and starting in 1992 Nebraska, allocate their electoral votes in a semi proportional manner. The two state’s electoral votes representing the two senators from that state, are assigned to the plurality winner of that state’s popular vote, and the other electoral votes that correspond to that state are given to the plurality winner in the popular vote in each of the state’s U.S. House of Representatives district. Maine has 4 electoral votes and Nebraska has 5. This means 2 and 3 electoral votes respectively will go to the candidate who wins that district, even if the candidate does not win a plurality of the popular vote statewide.

We vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election.  After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state.  The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, the states get together in December as an Electoral College and each vote. This is the way we determine a winner. Each state will vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry and the mandate of its state’s constitution.  We do not have proportional representation in the United States.

Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: Americans dislike ties because they associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins.  We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner in that state (except for Maine and Nebraska above) gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won Florida by a small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a margin smaller than George W. Bush. In recent years, another two presidents got to the White House without getting a majority of the popular vote: Bill Clinton twice, and president, Donald J. Trump. According to all presidential polls, if president Trump was reelected, he would go back to the White House after winning the electoral college, but losing the popular vote.

The electoral college was born to have a duly elected democratic government that would replace the monarchy Americans endured in colonial times. The state of communications and the educational level of the American population were such, that it was thought unwise to hold a direct presidential election where the winner of the popular vote would become president of the United States. Access to newly founded Washington, D.C., surrounded by swamps and, for Eighteenth Century standards, far away from most thirteen original states made it uncertain that all states would get to vote in a presidential election. Because only a handful of representatives from each state would go to the capital to cast that state’s votes for president, it was decided that only land holder white men would have a right to vote for these electors. It was decided to exclude white men with no land as they had no vested interest in the election; women were considered unprepared to make such a decision, blacks were slaves and deprived of human rights, including political ones, and Native Americans and other minorities were not considered citizens of the United States, and ineligible to vote.  Eventually, after a Civil War a century later, and several social movements a century after the War, all men and women born in the U.S., or naturalized American citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or national origin, successfully claimed their human right to vote. The American population of the United States territories are nationals of the U.S., and they can vote in a presidential election if they are residing in the 50 states or the District of Columbia.

I mentioned earlier that most Americans like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, the country’s political and legal systems rest on a foundation of fairness and justice. With a nation as diverse as the current United States, a majority believes the only way to maintain these principles is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal.  This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.

We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to all 50 states of the United States of America (and the District of Columbia) and to the citizens of the country, in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November.  The answer is as follows:  The Constitution of the United States establishes there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House.  When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population.  The American constitution establishes there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state, currently that is 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.

As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that they all, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.

Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (435 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state; therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538.  Because of these totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes.  This is the reason California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)

The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 countries with an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December.  Because on the first Tuesday in November, or shortly after that, we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.


Electoral votes by state Total: 538;

majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270

State number of votes State number of votes State number of votes
Alabama 9 Kentucky 8 North Dakota 3
Alaska 3 Louisiana 9 Ohio 20
Arizona 10 Maine 4 Oklahoma 7
Arkansas 6 Maryland 10 Oregon 7
California 55 Massachusetts 12 Pennsylvania 21
Colorado 9 Michigan 17 Rhode Island 4
Connecticut 7 Minnesota 10 South Carolina 8
Delaware 3 Mississippi 6 South Dakota 3
District of Columbia 3 Missouri 11 Tennessee 11
Florida 27 Montana 3 Texas 34
Georgia 15 Nebraska 5 Utah 5
Hawaii 4 Nevada 5 Vermont 3
Idaho 4 New Hampshire 4 Virginia 13
Illinois 21 New Jersey 15 Washington 11
Indiana 11 New Mexico 5 West Virginia 5
Iowa 7 New York 31 Wisconsin 10
Kansas 6 North Carolina 15 Wyoming 3

I now invite your comments on the way presidential elections are conducted in the United States, but please do not send political postings or partisan attacks. They will not be posted. This is a blog for interpreters and translators, not for political debate.

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