Math: Majority Rules?

How many votes does a Presidential candidate need to win? If you said millions, you’re right — and wrong!

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Elections are simple things, right? If you get a majority of votes, you win. Say you're running for class president. There are 100 kids in your class. You need to receive at least one more than half the votes, or 51, to win the election.

Now say you're running for President of the United States. There are 100 million voters, and 50,000,001 of them vote for you. Have you won? Not necessarily. In U.S. elections, a candidate may become President even if he or she doesn't receive a majority of votes. Why? In our national elections, the President is elected by a majority of electoral votes, not popular votes.

Popular votes are cast by the millions of Americans who go to the polls on Election Day. Electoral votes are cast by just 538 people representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia. They make up a body called the Electoral College. Here's how the Electoral College works. Each state has as many Electors as it has Senators and Representatives in Congress. Every state has two Senators. The number of Representatives each has is based on the state's population. States with more people have more Representatives and more electoral votes than states with fewer people.

As our chart shows, California has the most electoral votes. No one can tell how many of the 26 million people living there will go to the polls on November 5. But one thing is certain: if a majority of Californians choose Bill Clinton, he'll get all of California's electoral votes. In our electoral system, the candidate who receives the most popular votes wins that state. And the candidate who wins at least 270 electoral votes becomes President.

Why 270? Remember, there are a total of 538 electoral votes. In order to become President, a candidate needs to win one more than half, or 270.

But this can get even more complicated. What happens if the electoral vote results in a tie between two candidates? Or what if three candidates are running, and no one receives 270 electoral votes? In cases like these, the President is chosen by the House of Representatives. When the House votes, each state casts just one vote. The candidate who wins a majority of votes, or 26 states, becomes President.

So, how many votes does a Presidential candidate need in order to move into the White House? The answer is millions, or 270, or 26. It all depends on what happens on Election Day!

Your Turn

Use the numbers on our chart and some guessing and checking to answer the questions. [answers below]

1. Say that on Election Day, the Democratic candidate wins a majority of votes in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. The Republican candidates wins Florida, Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California.

a. How many electoral votes go to the Democrat?

b. How many go to the Republican?

c. Which nine remaining states would give the Democrat the victory?

2. What is the fewest number of states a candidate needs to win to get 270 electoral votes?

3. a. Say no candidate in a three-candidate race wins a majority of electoral votes. What is the maximum number of electoral votes the third-place candidate could have received?

b. What is the maximum number of states that candidate could have won to finish third?

4. Do you think every American's vote has the same weight in our electoral system? Why or why not?

5. Do you think a candidate from California has an edge over one from Alaska? Why or why not?

6. Say you're running for President. Make a list of states you'd most want to visit during the critical last two weeks of the campaign. Why would you choose those states?

Chart: How Many Electoral Votes Does Each State Get?

Alabama 9

Alaska 3

Arizona 8

Arkansas 6

California 55

Colorado 8

Connecticut 8

Delaware 3

Florida 25

Georgia 13

Hawaii 4

Idaho 4

Illinois 22

Indiana 12

Iowa 7

Kansas 6

Kentucky 8

Louisiana 9

Maine 4

Maryland 10

Massachusetts 12

Michigan 18

Minnesota 10

Mississippi 7

Missouri 11

Montana 3

Nebraska 5

Nevada 4

New Hampshire 4

New Jersey 15

New Mexico 5

New York 33

North Carolina 14

North Dakota 3

Ohio 21

Oklahoma 8

Oregon 7

Pennsylvania 23

Rhode Island 4

South Carolina 8

South Dakota 3

Tennessee 11

Texas 32

Utah 5

Vermont 3

Virginia 13

Washington 11

West Virginia 5

Wisconsin 11

Wyoming 3

District of Columbia 3


1a. 158

1b. 147

1c. Answers will vary; any combination of 9 states that provides a total of at least 112 electoral votes.

2. 11

3a. 178

3b. 31 (not including Washington, D.C.)

46. Answers will vary.

  • Subjects:
    Real-World Math, Elections and Voting, The Presidency
  • Skills:
    Social Studies