As the US election results rolled in, you may have been asking yourself why Hillary Clinton led the popular polls for nearly the entire election, yet she still lost, and you may also wonder why so much campaigning time is spent in certain states.

Put simply, it’s because of the Electoral College.


The origins of the Electoral College are in compromise. It was established in the Constitution as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote.

The Electoral College consists of 538 ‘electors,’ one elector for each state’s members in the House of Representatives and senators. Each state has two senators (100 total US senators), there are 435 members of the House of Representatives, and three electors have been given under 23rd Amendment  of the Constitution the to the District of Columbia, that is not officially a state. There is a ballot measure this year for District of Columbia citizens to vote for official statehood, but as it would require approval of Congress, it is unlikely to go forward.

Candidates for President in each state have their own group of electors, chosen by the candidate’s political party, but like most laws and rules governing US election process, there is wide variance between states. Interestingly, many states do not have a law requiring electors to vote the way their party and state did, but instances of “faithless electors” are few and far between because it’s a strongly held custom to follow the historical process.

Election day is also an historical artifact. The presidential election is held every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, as determined in the Constitution. It was decided that this was the ideal time to not interfere with farming harvests, require farmers to travel or vote on the Sabbath, or interfere with traditional market days. Many states have early voting, however, and some states such as Colorado have moved to have voting entirely by post. Laws around when the polls are open and how citizens can vote in each state are hotly contested because there are clear demographic differences in who votes early. State parties push for legal changes that they think will give their party the best national chance.

If you’ve heard the number 270 floating around, that is because that is the magic number of electoral votes required to elect the President. Part of the reason that disproportionate attention is paid to some states rather than others, known as ‘swing states’ is because aside from two states (Maine and Nebraska) electoral college votes from states are “winner-take-all.”

Under this system, populous states such as Illinois and California with large left-leaning cities (Chicago and Los Angeles respectively) are counted firmly in one column before the election despite their large numbers of electoral votes, and more time is spent on the states with electoral votes where there is possibility of ‘swinging’ the vote into one column or another.

It is possible for a President to win the popular vote but lose the election based on Electoral College votes, the situation that we find ourselves in today with a tight race in many states despite Clinton’s consistent lead in the national popular polls. Recently, George W Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore by .51 per cent in 2000, but won the election after Florida results were contested in the Supreme Court.

Voters can ‘split the ballot’ and vote differently for the presidential election as in other Senate, House and local races, and some states even have some forms of preferential voting akin to Australian voting for local elections, called instant runoff elections. Despite the risk of a third party ‘spoiler’ candidate, there isn’t a big national push for instant runoff elections.

After the presidential election, each state’s governor prepares a “Certificate of Ascertainment” listing all of the candidates who ran for President in that state and the names of their respective electors, these certificates are sent to the Congress and the National Archives. The electors meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December after the presidential election in each state to officially cast their ballots, this is recorded in a state’s “Certificate of Vote,” which is sent to the Congress and the National Archives. The nation’s electoral votes are counted in a joint session of Congress on the 6th of January in the year following the meeting of the electors. Members of the House and Senate meet in the House chamber to conduct the official tally of electoral votes.

As President of the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden will preside over the count and announce the results of the vote. The President-Elect is sworn in as President of the United States after taking the oath of office on January 20th in the year following the Presidential election.

There is hope for the losing party in today’s Presidential election, as majorities in the House and Senate can be easily reclaimed in the midterm elections in two years, where there is typically much lower turnout than for a presidential election.

Petra Kelly is a dual Australian and United States citizen, having lived in the United States for 10 years and studied public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.

The Agenda Group is known for its high quality public policy and communications advice. For more information on how The Agenda Group can help you, please contact Petra at