Another US election, another frenzied few days of brightly coloured CGI graphics and fast-speaking commentators splashed across our television screens. Unlike British elections, where we seem to mainly focus on the inside of ageing community centres and meek audiences applauding as someone wins (or, perhaps more excitingly, when someone important in government loses) next to an eccentric in fancy dress, American politics quickly becomes the most serious main news story for broadcasters and newspapers around the world. As the saying goes, “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold”. That’s not wrong – but this time, it’s coronavirus.
At the time of writing this, there still isn’t a clear-cut winner in the US 2020 election and we’ve now been waiting almost 24 hours. What there has been is lots of drama and lots of talk of the ‘electoral college’. But what is that, and what do the numbers mean? Let me explain, in a way the news channels won’t.
Given its name, it would be fair for you to assume that the Electoral College is a place; but it’s not, and it’s definitely not an educational establishment. The Electoral College is actually just a process. In each state, the public votes for an ‘elector’ in their region. The elector supports one of the presidential candidates, so in this case the Republicans support Donald Trump’s re-election and the Democrats support Joe Biden’s election. Each state is allocated an amount of electors based on the voting population that lives there – so in broad terms, you can expect big states like California (which has a population of almost 40million people) to have lots of electors (it has 55), and smaller states like Delaware (which has less than a million people living in it) to have few (it has the minimum of 3). This is intended to equal out states’ contributions to the democratic process; but it does mean that some states carry more weight than others.
Across the US, there are 538 electors. Much like here in the UK, providing you meet the criteria to legally vote, you can cast your ballot to support a person pledging to represent one of the main parties or a smaller one… or Kanye West. And that’s quite enough about him.
When you hear of a state being ranked as blue or red (or Rep or Dem, or Donald or Joe), it means that the majority of the electors in that state have been elected to support one party.
On a map (usually computer-generated and so busy you can barely make it out because, duh, high-powered political talk requires lots of coffee and concentration and you have probably have other things to be getting on with!), they’ll be coloured red for a Republican win, or blue for a Democrat win. While the US parties aren’t the same as the two British main political parties, you can in broad terms consider their colours to be the opposite of here – the blue is actually the more liberal, and the red the more traditional and conservative. It’s like the blue and green debate over cheese and onion crisps (blue, by the way).
The first candidate to win enough states to hit the number of 270 electoral votes for their party is elected to the Presidency. 269 is half of the 538 electors, so it takes them to the majority. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the candidate with the most electoral college votes actually received the most ballots in the boxes (Hilary Clinton got almost 3million more actual votes than Donald Trump in 2016!), but it does mean they’re represented the most by those elected.
This system means the US public aren’t directly voting for their chosen President, but rather an elected official who pledge to carry out the political process of choosing and appointing the new President; but you know who they’re gonna choose ahead of time. Well, ish. Technically an elector can ‘change their mind’ and vote for someone else, but this is usually done in protest rather than for the opposition. Nightmare, huh? The actual process of choosing the President happens later on and is largely ceremonial. On this day, usually a few weeks after the public election, each elector casts one vote for the President and two for a Vice President; but unless there’s some kind of major upset, we know how the results are going to pan out.
So, headlines. The winner needs 270 votes in the (kinda not-a-real-thing) Electoral College, and they need them quickly. The counting can take ages, because there’s so many ballots to get through, and the candidates will be full of bravado throughout as this happens – normally centre-stage on your telly talking loudly and surrounded by a lot of star-spangled banners. There’s no frat houses and no red cups, but there is a lot of tension and often a lot of wild predictions.
My advice? Try not to stress. Wait it out. Vote Elle Woods.
The header image for this article was taken by Element5 Digital for Unsplash.