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Raleigh, N.C., 2016: A girl colours a map of the United States in either red or blue as returns are announced at Republican Governor Pat McCrory's election-night party. The states in red would end up sending Electoral College members to vote for Donald Trump, and the blue ones for Hillary Clinton.

Jonathan Drake/Reuters/Reuters

If all goes well, Americans will elect their next president on Nov. 3. Except they’re not technically electing him, and the people who are won’t be doing so for another few weeks. If all goes well, that is.

Confused? Welcome to the U.S. electoral system. Since the 18th century, Americans have chosen their presidents through a small and little-understood group, the Electoral College, and a formula that uses states' voting results to tell its members what to do. Even in normal times, U.S. elections can be a messy process, but in a Trump-era pandemic there are extra challenges at every step: Long lineups at polling stations could delay their closing times, the counting of mail-in ballots could take days or weeks and, in the chaos, the President could claim victory prematurely or refuse to accept defeat.

Here’s an overview of how the Electoral College works and why it exists, so you know what to expect on election night and in the weeks afterward.

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How the Electoral College works

North Carolina Electoral College representatives sign their voting certificates at the state capitol in Raleigh in December of 2016.

Jonathan Drake/Reuters/Reuters

The popular vote doesn’t automatically decide who becomes president, as Hillary Clinton learned in 2016 when she outperformed Donald Trump but still lost. The decision is actually made by 538 people called electors, who vote in mid-December based on how their states' results turned out. All but two states are winner-take-all: If, say, 51 per cent of Floridians vote for Joe Biden, he gets all 29 of Florida’s Electoral College votes. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where it’s a mix of statewide popular vote and results by congressional district. Whichever candidate gets 270 votes or more is elected president.

NUMBER OF ELECTORS PER STATE

NORTHEAST REGION

ME: 4

VT: 3

NH: 4

NY: 29

MA: 11

RI: 4

CT: 7

PA: 20

NJ: 14

MIDWEST REGION

MN

10

ND: 3

WI

10

MI

16

SD: 3

IA: 6

NE: 5

IN

11

OH: 18

IL

20

MO

10

KS: 6

SOUTH REGION

MD: 10

DE: 3

DC: 3

WV: 5

VA: 13

KY: 8

NC: 15

TN: 11

OK: 7

AR

6

SC: 9

AL

9

GA

16

MS

6

LA

8

TX: 38

FL

29

WEST REGION

WA: 12

MT: 3

OR: 7

ID

4

WY: 3

NV: 6

UT: 6

CA

55

CO: 9

AZ: 11

NM: 5

AK

3

HI

4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS;

U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

NUMBER OF ELECTORS PER STATE

NORTHEAST REGION

ME: 4

VT: 3

NY: 29

MA: 11

RI: 4

CT: 7

PA: 20

NJ: 14

NH: 4

MIDWEST REGION

MN

10

ND: 3

WI

10

MI

16

SD: 3

IA: 6

NE: 5

IN

11

OH: 18

IL

20

MO

10

KS: 6

SOUTH REGION

MD: 10

DE: 3

DC: 3

WV: 5

VA: 13

KY: 8

NC: 15

TN: 11

OK: 7

AR

6

SC: 9

AL

9

GA

16

MS

6

LA

8

TX: 38

FL

29

WEST REGION

WA: 12

MT: 3

OR: 7

ID

4

WY: 3

NV: 6

UT: 6

CA

55

CO: 9

AZ: 11

NM: 5

AK

3

HI

4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS; U.S. CENSUS BUREAU

NUMBER OF ELECTORS PER STATE

WA: 12

VT: 3

ME: 4

MT: 3

MN

10

ND: 3

OR: 7

ID

4

NY

29

MA: 11

WI

10

MI

16

SD: 3

RI: 4

WY: 3

CT: 7

PA: 20

IA: 6

NH: 4

NV: 6

NE: 5

IN

11

NJ: 14

OH: 18

IL

20

UT: 6

CA

55

CO: 9

DE: 3

WV: 5

MO

10

KS: 6

VA: 13

KY: 8

MD: 10

NC: 15

DC: 3

TN: 11

AZ: 11

OK: 7

AR

6

NM: 5

SC: 9

AL

9

GA

16

MS

6

LA

8

TX: 38

FL

29

AK

3

HI

4

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Why do some states have so many more votes than others?

The Constitution gives each state a certain number of seats in the House of Representatives based on their populations, as measured in the census every 10 years. Then, states get that number of votes plus two in the Electoral College. (The District of Columbia, while not a state, gets three college votes, but there are none for U.S. overseas territories like Puerto Rico or Guam.)

Big states get a lot of votes in absolute terms, though not in terms of votes per capita. The most powerful voters are actually in states such as North Dakota and Wyoming, because no matter how small they are (Wyoming has fewer people than the city of Hamilton), they can have no fewer than three college votes. So their voters have disproportionate power, while those in big states such as New York and California are underrepresented.

Lovely A. Warren, mayor of Rochester, N.Y., talks with ex-president Bill Clinton, a fellow New York state elector in 2016, before they cast their ballots in Albany.

Hans Pennink/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

Who are the electors?

Sometimes they’re regular people such as teachers or firefighters who are registered members of a party, but they may also be party functionaries or politicians: In 2016, Bill Clinton was an elector in New York state, and voted as instructed for his wife. Each state party has its own methods for picking slates of electors, and whichever party wins the state sends them to the Electoral College. The final lists of electors may not be complete until December: By federal law, states have until Dec. 8 to settle any disputes about their slates.

Do electors have to vote for the person their state chose?

No. A few, called unpledged electors, are allowed to support anyone they want. Even pledged electors can break their promise, in which case they’re called faithless electors: These are rare, but there was a record number of them in the last election – seven people who succeeded in casting what were essentially protest votes against their assigned candidate. Some states have laws that say faithless votes shouldn’t be counted, but there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution to stop faithless electing in general.

A portrait of Andrew Jackson, who lost a presidential election in an 1825 tiebreaker vote in Congress, hangs behind Mr. Trump in 2018.

Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

What happens if there’s a tie?

If neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Biden can reach 270 votes, then it’s up to the newly elected House of Representatives to solve the deadlock in early January with what’s called a contingent election. This wouldn’t be like a normal House vote, in which a simple majority wins: Here, each state’s delegation of legislators decides as a bloc who should be president, and the candidate who gets 26 states or more wins.

The presidency hasn’t been decided in this way since 1825: After a general election with four candidates, three made it to a contingent election where lawmakers chose John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson, even though Jackson had received more college votes than Adams. (Jackson would defeat Adams in the next election, and today Mr. Trump is an outspoken fan of his.)

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Images from the U.S. Constitution loom behind Mr. Trump at a Sept. 15 town hall in Philadelphia, where the country's governing document was first written in 1787.

Evan Vucci/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

Why do Americans choose their president like this?

When the framers of the U.S. Constitution got together in 1787, few expected they would agree to a one-person presidency at all, and few agreed how they should elect such a person. Straight popular elections were considered, but rejected, for three main reasons:

  • Self-interest: The founding states saw themselves as sovereign, and while they agreed a stronger central government was needed, they still wanted an executive that was in some way answerable to all of them. They feared a directly elected leader would answer only to the most populous states, or abuse their mandate for autocratic ends.
  • Racism: Agrarian slave-owning states, whose Black inhabitants couldn’t vote, feared direct presidential elections would give white southerners less influence than the mostly free populations of other states. This fear also shaped the way the Constitution calculated the makeup of the House, and by extension the Electoral College; Enslaved Black people counted toward states' seat numbers, though for this purpose they were considered only three-fifths of a person. (Even after slavery was abolished, anti-Black voter suppression tactics allowed white people to keep much of this influence on Electoral College outcomes. And the formula still hampers Black voters today because the states with low per-person voting power also tend to have the biggest Black populations.)
  • Logistics: Eighteenth-century America was a preindustrial world in which people and information travelled slowly. The Founding Fathers couldn’t have imagined an orderly, timely election on a nationwide scale, especially in an era where voting was done by groups of people stating their decisions in public, not by secret ballot.

The framers' original solution to these problems was to have Congress pick the president, but then they worried lawmakers would be too easily manipulated by political parties, which were not yet well-established in the new republic. The framers concluded that a small group of ordinary people would be less corruptible and free from the “heats and ferments” of public opinion, almost like citizens on jury duty. As a further safeguard, the Constitution forbade all the country’s electors from meeting in the same place at once, which is why each state’s electors meet separately. But over time, electors became beholden to party interests anyway because Democrats and Republicans took charge of selecting them.


Pro-Biden pumpkins are seen outside of a house in Lancaster, Pa., on Oct. 25. Pennsylvania is one of the crucial states in Mr. Biden's path to victory.

Hannah McKay/Reuters/Reuters

Which states could decide the outcome?

The process we’ve just described may sound complicated, but for Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, the goal in any given state is a simple one: Win the biggest popular vote and take the Electoral College votes. That’s easier said than done in places where polling suggests the results will be close, and where support has alternated between Republicans and Democrats in the past (sometimes called purple states).

Depending on whom you ask, there are seven to a dozen states that could be considered battlegrounds, including Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Ohio.

In the interactive Associated Press map below, you can explore different scenarios for how the battleground states might swing, based on the outcomes of past elections.

Battleground states: Dispatches from The Globe and Mail

Arizona and Pennsylvania: How U.S. Latinos galvanized against Trump hope to swing two critical states to the Democrats

Michigan: Trump and Biden’s two solitudes clash over race and the pandemic

Wisconsin: For voters in this swing state, the path to the polls is an obstacle course

North Carolina: Political battle lines run deep in a once reliably red state



The other elections to worry about

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez votes early at a polling station in the Bronx on Oct. 25.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters/Reuters

The presidency is the biggest thing up for grabs on Nov. 3, but voters have lots of other decisions to make, such as:

  • Congress: Republicans and Democrats are fighting for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives (currently controlled by a Democratic majority), and 35 out of 100 seats in the Senate (which the GOP controls). The makeup of the House will be important if the presidential race is so close that a contingent election is needed, but as we’ve noted, those elections are rare.
  • State governors and legislators: Governorships are up for grabs in 11 states and two territories, and most jurisdictions are electing representatives to their state legislatures or senates.
  • Ballot questions: State plebiscites are being held on everything from cannabis legalization to ride-sharing. Some propositions will decide the rules of future elections, such as one in California that would lower the voting age to 17.


U.S. Postal Service letter carrier Dawnya Allred sorts mail, including yellow mail-in ballots, for delivery in a residential neighborhood of Phoenix on Oct. 8.

John Moore/Getty Images/Getty Images

When will we know the results? And then what happens?

If you’re hoping for a definitive result on election night, you’ll likely be disappointed. Here are some of the factors that could delay things:

  • Closing times: Polls close at different times from state to state, and sometimes city to city. You may start to see the first East Coast results around 7 p.m. (ET), and the last results on the West Coast after midnight. But if there are problems at the polling places, governments could convince local courts to keep them open longer.
  • Mail-in ballots: COVID-19 has led more Americans than ever to send their ballots from the safety of their homes, but state procedures for handling those ballots haven’t kept up with the higher workload. Cost-cutting at the U.S. Postal Service, and Mr. Trump’s refusal to give it more money, could delay the delivery of ballots too. Some states still allow mail-in ballots to be counted if they arrive days after the election.
  • The Trump administration intervenes: For months, Mr. Trump has amplified conspiracy theories that claim, without evidence, that Nov. 3′s results will be rife with fraud. So has his Attorney-General, William Barr, whose Justice Department could launch investigations of alleged fraud, giving Mr. Trump more ways to cast doubt on the results.
  • Anti-election violence: Intimidation at polling stations or vote-counting offices is not a far-fetched possibility. It happened in the 2000 election, when hundreds of protesters – dubbed the “Brooks Brothers riot” for the suits and ties they wore – swarmed a Florida counting office to demand they stop a recount. This time, interference from far-right groups or hackers could also make things dangerous for state officials.

Election officials and parties and candidates will have only 41 days to settle these problems before Dec. 14, when electors are required to meet and cast their votes. If not all states have fully counted results by then, things will get messy. The loser could claim the result is illegitimate; parties could challenge the outcome; or the U.S. Supreme Court – where Mr. Trump managed to squeeze in his third judicial appointment a week before election day – might have to weigh in, as it did in 2000.


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