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Have you ever wondered about the presidential election process, including the Electoral College? Trying to understand exactly how a presidential candidate receives the electoral votes to become president can seem a little confusing. Where do those electoral votes on election day come from? There are five cases in United States history in which the president elected did not win the popular vote, but won the votes that mattered: the electoral votes.

The Importance of “270”

Do you remember the importance of the number 270? This is the number of electoral votes a presidential candidate needs to get in order to be elected president. This number also represents the majority of 538, the total number of electors each political party has in the country. That means the Constitution Party has 538 electors, the Green Party Party has 538 electors, the Independent Party has 538 electors, etc.

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How did this come to be? In 1787, the Founding Fathers drafted a compromise to address the concerns some groups had when deciding on how a person would be elected president. 

One group was worried that if Congress decided on who would be president it would create opportunity for corruption. Another group was concerned that if the results were based solely on the popular vote, that one side would control power for too long. 

They also feared the public did not have the resources to make an informed decision, and the president chosen only by the popular vote would appeal too much to the public without consideration of what might be best for the American people. 

Therefore, they agreed that a group of intermediaries would be chosen, either by popular vote or by congress, to be part of the electoral college that would actually cast their vote for the president.

What Determines “270”?

The number of electors in each state is determined by two things: the Senate, and, believe it or not, the Census. Every ten years, a Census is taken to see how many residents are in each state. The number of residents in each state determines the number of House Representatives that state has. The number of House Representatives determined for each state equals one elector.

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Each state also has two Senators, and therefore receives an additional two electoral votes per state, totaling 100 electoral votes. The remaining 438 electoral votes is equal to the 435 House Representatives, plus the three electors chosen in the District of Columbia, even though it has no Senator or House Representative. Does this mean the Senators and the House of Representatives vote on who is elected president? No. Article II Section I of the United States Constitution states:

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

Therefore, for every one Senator, there is one proxy electoral vote, and for every one House of Representative, there is one proxy electoral vote.

The Electoral College

The 538 electoral votes per political party make up the Electoral College. Who is assigned to the Electoral College varies depending on the laws and requirements of each state, and how the Electoral College votes also depends on the laws of each state. When citizens of each state vote for the presidential candidate of their choice, they are actually voting for the party they want sending in the electoral votes. If the green party candidate gets the majority of the votes in a particular state, the green party electors get to vote for who they want to be president.

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For example, Illinois holds 20 electoral votes. If the independent candidate receives the popular vote in Illinois on Election day, then the 20 electors votes for that state will be given to the Independent Party, and those 20 individuals will choose who they want to be president. At the same time, if the majority of people in Ohio choose the Reform Party candidate, the 18 electors chosen by the Reform Party of Ohio get to individually vote on who they want to be president. According to Title 3 of the United States Code Section 7 (3 U.S. Code § 7):

"The electors of President and Vice President of each State shall meet and give their votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next following their appointment at such place in each State as the legislature of such State shall direct."

The Voting Process

So while the population votes on the first Tuesday of November of the presidential election year, the electoral college doesn't meet to vote for the president until around the second or third week of the following December. The Constitution does not force the electors to vote the same way the popular vote went, some state laws require the electors to do so. Does this mean an Independent elector can vote for the Reform presidential candidate? In some states, yes, and this is why history has proven that the presidential candidate that receives the popular vote is not always elected as President of the United States.

So when you go to vote for your preferred presidential candidate, remember that it is not the president you are voting for, but you are voting for the political party who will send in their electoral college. The electoral college will then vote for who they want to be president.

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