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. Let's pretend there are only 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. There are more than 146 million registered voters, but not every single voter will vote in every election. 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 state 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 list below 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 a specific candidate, he will get all of California's electoral votes. In our electoral system, the candidate who receives the most popular votes wins that state. (There are two states that do not always adhere to this rule: Maine and Nebraska sometimes divide their respective electoral votes between candidates.) 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 becomes President. If there are only two candidates, a candidate must win at least 26 votes.
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!
Use the numbers on our list — and some guessing and checking — to answer the questions.
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 candidate 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. Say no candidate in a three-candidate race wins a majority of electoral votes.
a. 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?
New Hampshire 4
New Jersey 14
New Mexico 5
New York 29
North Carolina 15
North Dakota 3
Rhode Island 4
South Carolina 9
South Dakota 3
West Virginia 5
District of Columbia 3