Every four years, Americans who are 18 or older have a big responsibility. Our votes decide who becomes the president of the United States. Unfortunately the US election system isn't that simple.
It's easy to imagine every US citizen's vote being counted together on election day. But this is not the case. US elections are not decided by the total or popular vote, but individual states. Let me explain.
It starts with your vote. On election day you’ll vote for president and their vice president. You get one choice. Then, all the votes in your state are counted. The candidate with the most state-wide votes becomes the candidate your state supports for president. This happens across the country until each state has selected their candidate.
We end up with most of the 50 states and the District of Columbia voting to support 1 candidate each. But there's a problem. We can't elect a president by just counting up the choices of these states - US states are different.
Consider this: California has about 36 million people, Kansas has less than 3 million. We need a way for California's choice to have more influence on the election because the state has more people. The question becomes - how do we make sure each state has the right amount of influence on the election?
Well, we need to account for the population of each state.
As an example, Let's consider my home state of North Carolina... Like every state, it is divided up into congressional districts that are based on population. North Carolina has 13 districts, California has 53 and Kansas has four. When it comes to a state's influence on the election, the number of districts matters most. More population = More districts = More influence.
The influence a state has in the election is measured by the number of "electors". This number comes from the number of districts in a state plus the number of U.S. senators - which is always two. North Carolina has 15 electors, California has 55.
When a candidate wins the voting in a state, they win that state’s number of electors. That's why big, populous states can be so important to candidates – their electors add up quickly. And the number of electors is what really matters. Here’s why…
If you add up the electors of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, there are 538 in total. The goal on election day is to win the majority of 538 – or 270 electors. Once a candidate wins enough states to reach the 270 majority, they have won the election and become the president elect.
So, let's recap - Your vote helps your state choose a single candidate. That candidate receives all the electors from your state. The candidate who can win enough states to reach 270 total electors wins the national election and becomes the president elect.
Then, on the following January 20th, the president elect is sworn in as the next president of the United States. Yay!
It all starts with your vote. Make it count.
This video discusses the basic ideas behind the U.S. electoral process. It follows the chronological steps from voting to election day, focusing on each state's role, including:
New videos, events and more.
Our newsletter arrives about once a month.