How Votes Are Counted in the U.S. — The Popular Vote & Electoral College

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Time and time again we’re told, “your vote matters” and “every vote counts!” but does it really?

America’s vote-counting process is difficult to understand, so we’re here to break it down and help you decide whether your vote actually matters, or not (hint: IT DOES!).

Elections are held in the United States for government officials at the federal, state, and local level. To understand how votes are counted, we must first differentiate between direct and indirect elections. Most elections are direct, meaning you cast a ballot for a candidate of your choice and the candidate with the most votes (“popular vote”) wins. Midterm, state, and local elections are all direct.

Presidential elections, however, are unique because they are indirect. The general public cast ballots on Election Day (November), then the Electoral College cast their votes in January. These Electoral College votes are the ones that are counted by Congress and actually decide who wins the presidency.

So why do we vote on Election Day if the Electoral College votes are the only ones that count?

Answer: The party that wins the state’s popular vote usually wins all of the state’s electoral votes.

Here’s a more detailed explanation:

Every state gets a certain number of “electors” based on its population and number of districts, the same way we calculate the number of Congress members from each state. Before every presidential election, the party leaders from each state pick a group of electors, typically prominent party figures — governors, state legislature leaders, and any loyal party members who can be counted on to vote along with the state’s popular vote. The party that wins the statewide popular vote gets to send their group of electors to vote in January, when Congress meets and states’ electoral votes are counted.

There are some exceptions:

Maine and Nebraska employ a “district system” of distributing their electoral college votes — they have four and five, respectively. Both states assign two electors to vote for the state’s popular candidate and one elector to vote for each congressional district’s popular candidate.

Things are changing:

In recent years, a trend has emerged where Americans have shown greater support for a more democratic presidential election process. So far, sixteen states have enacted the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, agreeing to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in all fifty states and DC. The compact will go into effect only when enacted by states possessing a majority of electoral votes, meaning enough to elect a President (270 of 538).

As of October 2019, sixteen states possessing 196 electoral votes have enacted the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact: DC, DE, HI, RI, VT, CO, CT, MD, MA, NJ, NM, OR, WA, CA, IL, and NY.



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