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Electoral college

How we elect our President in the United States. Created by Sal Khan.
Video transcript
In the US, we don't directly vote for our president or vice president. Instead, we use something called the Electoral College. So when you show up to vote on Election Day-- and an election day will happen in November of an election year. And it could happen as early as November 2, and it could happen as late as November 8. And it's going to be the Tuesday after the first Monday in the month. So it'll be November 2 if the first Monday is November 1, and it'll be November 8 if the first Monday is November 7. And so you go on election day, and you will see a ballot that will have the presidential candidates. It'll have their parties there. It will have the vice presidential candidates, and you'll vote for one of them. But in actuality, when you are voting for Candidate A-- and let's say Candidate A is a Democrat-- you're not actually voting for Candidate A. You're actually voting for a slate of electors who promise to vote for that candidate. And it isn't in most states proportional based on what proportion of people vote for one candidate or another. In most of the states, except for Maine and Nebraska, it is a winner take all system. So what do I mean by that? So right here, you have the breakdown of the United States, by state, of how many electors words each state gets. And the number of electors is essentially the number of congressmen that that state has. For example, California has two senators. Every state has two senators. California has two senators and 53 congressmen. And those of you who aren't familiar with it, every state gets two senators, and the House of Representatives is dictated by population. California is a huge state, two senators, 53 representatives. You have Texas, two senators and it has 32 representatives. You go to Louisiana, you have two senators and you have seven representatives. So the electors per state is based on the total number of congressmen, so the number of senators plus the number of representatives. That's what gives us 55 in California, nine in Louisiana, 34 in Texas. But what's interesting here is it's a winner take all system in every state except for Nebraska and Maine. In every other state, if I get 51% of the vote in Texas, I get all 34 electoral votes in the Electoral College. If I get 51% or even if I get 50.1%, just a slight majority of the votes in California, I will get all of the votes for California in the Electoral College. And in general, or in actuality, the president is whoever gets the majority of the electoral votes in the United States. And right now, that threshold is, or that magic number-- you could think of it that way-- is 270 Electoral College votes. If no candidate is able to hit this threshold of 270 Electoral College votes, then it will go to the US Congress. And in the US Congress, it's interesting, because it isn't one congressman, one vote. Or actually, I should say the US House of Representatives. It'll go to the US House of Representatives. And it won't be one representative, one vote. What will happen is the representatives in each state will vote together, and each state will get only one vote. So in a tiebreaker, the big states really, really lose out, because in a tiebreaker, Texas will get only one vote. California will get one vote. And Alaska will get one vote, and Rhode Island will get one vote. So Rhode Island will have just as much say in a tiebreaker as California will over who will be president. Then they'll just keep voting until someone gets a simple majority of the votes by state. Now, there's one other twist here. It's that the District of Columbia-- Washington, DC right over here-- in Congress gets no representatives. They have no senators, and they have no representatives. But they do get three electoral votes when it comes to deciding who is going to be president. Now, you might already be getting a sense here that maybe this winner take all system might lead to some distortions, and the biggest distortion of all is you can imagine a candidate who wins the popular vote and loses the election or loses in the Electoral College. And you might think, well, gee, how can that happen? And the way to think about it is, imagine someone-- let's say someone gets-- with the states that they win, they get huge majorities. So let's say there's a conservative candidate, and he or she gets huge majorities in the states they win. 80% in Texas. They get 80% in Mississippi. They get 80% in Oklahoma. The get huge majorities in the states that they win. And the states that they lose, they barely lose. And they barely lose those really big states. So let's say in Florida, that candidate gets 49% of the vote. So they had a lot of votes in Florida, but not enough to win it. The other person, let's say, gets 51%. All 27 go to the other candidate. Let's say the same thing happens in California. That candidate got 49% of the vote. The opponent, let's say, gets 51% of the vote. All 55 go to California. You get no credit for that 49%. You get no credit for that 49% in Florida. So in this situation, this candidate might actually end up with the majority, barely losing the states they lose, and trouncing the other candidate in the states that they win, but despite that, actually getting fewer Electoral College votes. Now, there's a few clarifications I want to make, especially ones that have confused me in the past. One of them is because you have the same number of Electoral College votes as you have US representatives plus senators, there's kind of this feeling that maybe each district sends its own elector to the state capital to decide who the president is. And it doesn't quite work that way. So this right here is the panel of electors for Louisiana in 2008. And you can see right over here, each of the parties have their own slate of electors. And these are either decided by the party themselves, or they're decided by the candidates' teams. And even though you have someone here for each district and then you have these at-large candidates, it's not like-- let's take a situation. This actually happened in Louisiana, where John McCain got a majority of the state. So John McCain and Sarah Palin got a majority of the state. It's not the case that-- let's say in the second district, which is New Orleans, let's say that the second district, a majority of the people actually voted for Barack Obama. It is not the case that Kenneth Garrett in 2008 would have been the chosen elector. Even though they divide things by district and they have these at-large candidates, it is actually a state-wide election. So they don't look at who won each of the districts. They just say, look, John McCain and Sarah Palin won the entire state. So all of these electors are the ones that are going to go to the state capital in December and decide who they want to pledge their vote for. So even if Obama won just the Second Congressional District, that's not how it's thought about in the Electoral College. It's just a state-wide election. McCain got the majority of the state. All of the electors will be chosen from McCain's slate or from the Republican Party slate. And then they're going to go to the state capital. In the case of Louisiana, it would be Baton Rouge. And they will decide who they want to pledge their votes to. And all of the electors in all of the states go to their designated location, usually the state capital, on the same day. And usually that is some day in December. And they pick the president, although by that point, everyone knows who the president is, because the actual election was in early November. And people know which way the votes went and which way the actual Electoral College votes went. Now, I did mention that there are two states that don't do this winner take all, Nebraska and Maine. And in Nebraska and Maine, when you go vote, it really is by congressional district. Nebraska has three congressional districts. So in those three congressional districts, if one of them goes to the Democrat and two goes to the Republican, then they'll have one electoral vote for the Democrat and two for the Republican. And then they have two at-large votes that are decided the same way, in kind of the winner take all basis. If you get 51% of the vote on a statewide basis, you get the two at-large votes. Same thing for Maine, but Maine has two congressional districts. So two of the congressional districts could go either way. And then the at-large are based on a state-wide vote. Now, you could imagine the other kind of unfair thing here, other than the popular vote versus the Electoral College vote. You could imagine it makes some states better represented than others. So if you just divide population by the number of electors, you see the larger states, each elector is representing many, many more people. This is California right here. Each elector is representing over 600,000 people. And in the smaller states-- this is Wyoming right here-- each elector is representing under 200,000 people. So in Wyoming, people are getting kind of three times the representation as they would in California on a per capita vote. But what makes it even a little bit more skewed, because it's winner take all and the candidates aren't silly and they want to make sure that they spend their money and their visits and their time in the most leveragable way, it actually creates this weird scenario where candidates will often ignore huge parts of the population. And they ignore them because those huge parts of the population are unlikely to swing one way or the other. So for example, California is very reliably Democratic and Texas is very reliably Republican. So this right here-- this is a fascinating graph, at least in my mind-- it shows where George W. Bush and John Kerry spent the last five weeks of the 2004 election. Let me close that right there. This top graph shows where they actually spent their time, so each of these little hands here is a visit in those final five weeks. And each of these dollar signs is a million dollars spent on marketing and advertising, on ads and whatever else, in those states. And you can see, California and Texas, the two biggest states, they didn't spend enough money to the threshold to get dollar a sign written there. So they didn't even spend $1,000,000 on these huge states. They only had a few visits to California, and Texas had no visits in the final five weeks. So what happens is that candidates spend a disproportionate amount of attention and money in the states that are more likely to swing one way or another. So the people in Florida or in Ohio-- so this is Ohio and Florida-- got a ton more attention, especially on a per person basis, than the people in Texas did.