Teaching the 2016 Election: The Electoral College, Part I

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

We close our look at the presidential race this week with further exploration of the Electoral College. Its origins are rooted in the Founding Era as our Framers sought the proper republican balance between a popularly elected president and excessive democracy. Thus was born a system where citizens don’t directly select their president, but instead vote by proxy through electors representing each state (and eventually the District of Columbia).

Each state is awarded an elector for every House and Senate member in its delegation, meaning a minimum of three. California tops the charts with a whopping 55 electoral votes. With 435 House members, 100 Senators, and 3 electors for D.C, there is a combined total of 538 electoral votes. Thus, in order to win the White House, a candidate must accumulate 270 or more votes.

With the exception of two states, the candidate that wins the popular vote takes all of its electoral votes. For example, the most recent poll of the presidential contest in Illinois shows Hillary Clinton with a 51%-32% lead over Donald Trump. Should this trend continue to November, Clinton would win the state’s 20 electoral votes.

In Maine and Nebraska, the statewide winner gains the two electoral votes representing their senators, but the remaining votes are awarded by congressional district. It is no coincidence that Clinton has campaigned in Omaha in an attempt to steal an electoral vote from an otherwise “red” state.

This speaks to the broader calculus of campaigning with the Electoral College in mind. It makes no sense to target states that regularly side with one party or the other, but instead to capture the so-called swing states. On the map below, the dark blue states have voted Democratic in at least 6 straight elections, and the red states Republican. Democrats claimed the three blue-green states 5 of 6 times, as did Republicans the five pink states. The true swing states are thus the two that have gone Democratic (light blue) or the seven Republican (buff) 4 of 6 times respectively, and Colorado and Florida that have split evenly between the two parties.


Current polling suggests that Clinton is leading in every one of them and has thus expanded her map to include Republican-leaning states like Arizona and Georgia. Trump’s path to 270 has a decidedly Midwestern bent, with Pennsylvania and Ohio being must-wins, and Iowa and Wisconsin also in play.
In a two party, first-past-the-post political system, it is mathematically possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College. It happened four times, most recently in 2000. Also possible is a 269-269 tie or a third party candidate winning one or more states and placing a roadblock in the path to 270. In this scenario, the House of Representatives would decide the outcome as it did in 1800 and 1824, with each state delegation having a single vote.

On Wednesday we’ll review lesson plans and links to resources that effectively bring the Electoral College to your classroom.

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