EXPLAINER: How the Electoral College holds key to US election outcome

An antiquated system where a few states decide for the many...

EXPLAINER: How the Electoral College holds key to US election outcome

Image: Matt Rourke / AP/Press Association Images

If you think Americans are heading for their polling stations to choose the next President of the United States today, think again.

Technically, the US Constitution doesn't even provide its citizens with the right to vote for their commander-in-chief.

What gives? The much-maligned Electoral College, an archaic compromise cobbled together by the writers of said Constitution to deal with a problem that really only existed before the days of political parties.

It is, in fact, the 538 popularly-elected members of the Electoral College who will be casting their votes for the president and vice-president in December. Today is all about each state ensuring that those chosen few will be thinking the same way the majority of its people are.

How does it work?

The 538 electoral votes are distributed between the 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC) based on their representation in the US Congress.

So California has the most electors with 55, whilst the smallest states – and DC, which has no presence in Congress – get three each.

Although it pays rough respect to the population of each state, it is not directly proportional, placing greater power in the hands of the less populous states than those regions would otherwise have.

For a presidential candidate to ensure victory, they need to have a majority of these electors on their side – that means they have to hit that all-important number of 270 votes.

For the most part, the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state gets all of its electors, except for Maine and Nebraska, where they have introduced a proportional system for awarding electors.

If Trump and Clinton both ended up with 269 electors each, or no candidate received a majority, the House of Representatives would break the tie. This would generally mean a Republican win this time around due to that party currently having control of the house, but with the way Trump's relationship with his supposed party has been in the latter stages of this campaign...


What problems does it pose?

On three occasions, the Electoral College system has resulted in a win for the candidate who lost the popular vote.

All three were Republicans, with Rutherford B Hayes and Benjamin Harrison benefitting in the 1800s and, most recently, George W Bush emerging victorious over Al Gore in 2000.

That protracted election 16 years ago highlighted the potential snags with the country's unique way of doing things.

Despite Gore being the choice for most Americans, a controversial Bush victory in Florida eventually cleared his path to the White House.

This is because Florida is one of the much talkd-about 'swing states' – states that are not historically dominated by either the Democratic Party or the GOP, and so receive the most attention come campaign time as presidential hopefuls try to sway those voters their way.

With 29 electors, Florida is the biggest swing state. While California has 55 electors, it has always gone Democrat (or 'blue'). Texas always hands its 38 to the red team, with New York's 29 completely sown up by Democrats too.

It means if you ardently believe Trump can 'Make America Great Again' in San Francisco, or are a Hillary fan in Austin, your vote can end up feeling pretty worthless as the candidates court the likes of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Proponents of the system would argue that these 'swing states' offer a more accurate picture of the overall make-up of the US, but it does mean voters in a minority of states are basically calling the shots.

The reasons behind this state of affairs?

To understand why the US employs this convoluted method, you have to go right back to the foundation of the nation. There, you'll find it was selected as a solution to a problem that no longer exists.

Before the party system was properly up and running, people were concerned that a direct popular vote would result in far too many candidates coming forward – or far too many local favourites being picked – making it nigh-on impossible to sort out a strong winner. Amidst calls for state legislatures to simply select the president, the Electoral College was constructed as a compromise to give the citizens a say in the matter. A case of yesterday's solution causing its own problems today, perhaps.

What does all this mean for Trump vs. Clinton?

To hit 270, both will be looking to snatch as many of the 157 swing state electoral votes as possible.

Florida will be important, as always, along with Ohio's 18 votes. Ohio has been a bellwether for the final result in every election since 1960, with Florida going the other way just once. Polls have Clinton performing weaker than Obama in the Midwest, and surrendering Ohio to Trump.

Elsewhere, more states than ever could be swinging this time around due to demographic shifts favouring Democrats.

In 2008, Obama turned North Carolina blue for the first time since Jimmy Carter, though Romney won it back last time out. Right now, it could go either way.

Trump will have to ensure he does not lose the traditional red states of Arizona, Georgia and Missouri, as Clinton's camp smells blood/opportunity.

If Trump stands firm in those states, wins the Florida and North Carolina toss-ups, and secures another biggie like Michigan, it's game on.

Clinton should be fine as long as she holds on to her six "firewall" states – anticipated victories in Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire would leave Trump's campaign with nowhere to run.

Then it will be time for Clinton's camp to celebrate... If they can't wait until the Electoral College members meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December to cast their votes and make it official, that is.

Newstalk will have live results coverage of the election starting at 10pm tonight on air with a special election show and live updates and analysis all night on Newstalk.com.

You can also follow along on Twitter @NewstalkFM.