How the Electoral College Works

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How it works

As the United States becomes more politically divided, it is more plausible for the President to win the Electoral College and lose the popular vote. Since 2000, news reports have speculated on the possibility of a tie in the Electoral College in the last five presidential elections. Now, analysts are mapping out possible scenarios for a 269-269 tie in 2020. Although a tie has only occurred once in the U.S., there are constitutional provisions in place to resolve one. The changing demographics in the U.S. and the impact of third-party voters could produce close Electoral College vote totals in the next presidential cycle. After the 2020 census, the key states to win the White House will change as Western and Southern states have high population totals, while Midwestern and Northeastern states face population decline. With changing demographics, an Electoral College tie in 2020 and beyond could occur.


The Electoral College is an important component of U.S. presidential races. Campaigns strategize how to gain 270 electoral votes to win the general election. This system is a major focus in presidential races as campaign strategists plan out how they will reach this crucial number. In the last presidential election cycle, President Donald Trump lost the popular vote to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, yet he still gained more electoral college votes to secure the presidency. This type of outcome has only occurred five times in history and twice in the last century. The growing political divide within the country has given rise to the possibility of a tie in the Electoral College, with 269 votes for each candidate. A tie of this nature happened previously in the 1800 election when there were only 16 states.

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The 2018 midterm elections returned control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats by sweeping margins. This deepening political divide may be reflected in the next presidential election cycle in 2020. In the event of a 269 tie, the House of Representatives would be constitutionally obligated to decide on the next president. The results of the 2018 midterm elections demonstrate how crucial winning key states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio will be for Republicans and Democrats to secure the White House in 2020.


When the Constitution was written, the Founding Fathers outlined the function of the electoral college in Article II, Section I as a counterbalance to the popular vote. The senior editor and correspondent at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. explained in a podcast that the electoral college is not a form of direct democracy because the Founders didn’t want to have a “mob-ocracy” elect the nation’s leaders. The electoral college consists of 538 electors, which is a combination of the total members of Congress and three electors in the District of Columbia. The National Archives and Records Administration describes how electors are selected in a two-step process. First, political parties select a number of electors at state party conventions or through a vote by the party’s main committee. Then, it’s up to voters to choose electors when casting a ballot in the presidential election. As voters cast their ballots for president in the general election, they are actually choosing the electors in their state.

After the ratification of the Constitution, the electoral college system remained unchanged until the election of 1800. The outcome of this race changed how American elections would be decided in the event of a tie or lack of a majority vote. The Library of Congress documents the outcome of the 1800 election, which pitted Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican party against incumbent John Adams of the Federalist Party. Jefferson beat Adams in the electoral college with a 73 to 65 electoral vote margin, but he tied with his vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr. At this time, there were not separate ballots for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and the runner-up became the vice president. In this case, the House of Representatives cast the deciding vote, and Jefferson won the presidency—although not easily. The vote between Jefferson and Burr was counted over 30 times, and neither candidate was able to gain a majority until Delaware representative James A. Bayard led other state delegations to break the tie in Jefferson’s favor.

After the 1800 election, there were five instances where the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college vote. Those presidential elections included 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. To correct the problems that arose in the 1800 election, Congress passed the 12th Amendment in 1803. It required electors to cast two ballots in a presidential election—one for president and one for vice president. In addition, a lack of a majority required the House of Representatives to choose the president and the Senate to choose the vice president. Under this amendment, the House of Representatives receives one vote per state delegation. In the event the House does not choose a president “before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice President shall act as President.” Later, the 20th amendment changed this clause to “the Vice President-elect shall act as President.” The Constitution Center states that the 12th amendment was very important in the 1824 election when John Quincy Adams won the presidency over Andrew Jackson in the electoral college despite losing the popular vote. This was the last election in which the House of Representatives decided which candidate would become president. In the 1888 election, Benjamin Harrison also won over Grover Cleveland without winning the popular vote. The electoral count in that election was 233 for Harrison and 168 for Cleveland.

Over a century later, the 2000 election featured a similar result. George W. Bush won the presidency with 271 electoral votes over popular vote winner Vice President Albert Gore Jr. This race sparked new controversy over the relevance of the Electoral College when the election came down to only a few hundred votes in Florida. A recent National Public Radio article comparing the 2018 Florida recount to 2000 mentioned a 537-vote margin between Bush and Gore for the presidency. A recount continued in Florida for nearly five weeks after the election, but it was halted by the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. Since the 2000 election, media outlets and analysts have speculated about possible Electoral College ties in presidential races. For example, former CNN political reporter Peter Hamby presented a scenario in which President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could have tied in the 2012 presidential election. The battleground states at the time were Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Iowa. If Romney had won New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Nevada, the race would have resulted in a tie, each candidate receiving 269 electoral votes. However, the final electoral count for that race was 332 electoral votes for President Obama and 206 votes for Romney.


In the most recent presidential election, Donald Trump became the fifth president to win the White House while still losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. During the 2016 election, Republicans won formerly Democratic states in the electoral college to secure the presidency. Two months before the race, Time Magazine published an article explaining what could happen if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had tied in the electoral college. The article states, “The number of mathematically possible ties varies depending on which states you consider to be tossups.” If one refers to tossups identified by Real Clear Politics, there are different scenarios with certain tossup states and a lack of faithless electors that could have played out to give both candidates a tie. If Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maine had all gone to Clinton and Nevada, Colorado, Virginia had gone to Trump, there would have been a 269 tie. In their report, The Electoral College: How It Works in Contemporary Presidential Elections, released in May 2017, the Congressional Research Service discusses how faithless electors impacted the 2016 electoral map. There were 10 electors pledged who “attempted to cast ballots for candidates other than those to whom they were pledged.” Seven of those electors succeeded in Hawaii, Texas, and Washington. The Congressional Research Service states that this is the largest number of faithless electors in a presidential cycle since the election of 1836. If those faithless electors had not turned out in large numbers, the 2016 election may have ended in a tie.


The 2018 midterm elections resulted in Democratic control of the House of Representatives and the party’s speculations for a Democratic win in 2020. States that voted for Republican President Donald Trump in the 2016 Election voted Democrat in the 2018 midterms. For the Senate, some of those states included Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In the House, Democrats flipped 40 Republican seats during the midterm cycle. Bloomberg News reported that the most recent House win was the defeat of incumbent Republican David Valadao by Democrat T.J. Cox in California’s 21st congressional district. While Republicans gained seats in the Senate and still have power in the upper chamber of Congress, Democrats had close races in red states such as Texas, Mississippi, and Florida. An article from National Public Radio projected how the result of the midterms could impact the 2020 presidential map. States of major importance for the 2020 election include Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Texas. Florida is arguably the most important battleground state in the U.S., given the close governor and senate race that occurred in the midterm election. The article cites GOP strategist Brad Todd who states, “There is no Republican winning coalition that doesn’t include Florida. You can’t make the math work.” Although Trump overcame Hillary’s blue wall in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, the 2018 midterms show that Republicans had major losses in all three of these states that Trump won by large margins in 2016. The suburbs are becoming a focal point for 2020 as President Trump will need to expand his base to win the election. The suburban vote helped Democrats outperform Republicans in the House, but both parties will need to engage these voters if they want to win in 2020.


The future changes to the demographic makeup of the U.S. have the potential to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. In April 2018, the Brookings Institution, Center for American Progress, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Public Religion Research Institute analyzed how America’s electorate will impact future presidential races from 2020 to 2036 in the States of Change Report. The report includes four different scenarios for how Democrats and Republicans could win the electoral college in the upcoming presidential races. In each of these scenarios, it becomes increasingly clear that the country is deeply divided. As more racially diverse voting populations and college-educated whites cast ballots for Democrats, non-educated whites vote Republican. Additionally, Republicans may try to expand their base to Hispanics, Asians, and other nonblack minority groups, but the trade-off would be a loss of non-college educated whites who may switch their support to Democrats.

One notable finding from this report includes the possibility of having a split popular and electoral college vote or an electoral college tie in the next few presidential elections. The changing demographics could lead to Democrats winning the popular vote while Republicans win the electoral college. Although whites are still the dominant voting group, the rise of non-white voters in the U.S. could result in larger Democratic wins in the future. The number of whites in the U.S. is shrinking each year as younger generations become more racially diverse. According to the State of Change report, “Whites made up 69 percent of eligible voters in 2016—a figure expected to drop to 67 percent by 2020 and 59 percent by 2036.” Additionally, more whites are becoming educated which could widen the political divide in the voting behavior of whites.

The return of third-party voters could also lead to a tie in the electoral college. In 2016, the number of third-party voters increased to new levels; however, historically high levels of third-party voters taper off in the subsequent presidential election. For instance, the high number of votes in the 1992 presidential race dropped in the 1996 presidential race. This same trend can be traced back to the 1948, 1968, 1980, and 2000 elections. If the number of third-party voters returns to 2012 levels for the 2020 election, the electoral college could be tied, and Democrats would win 2.8% of the popular vote. Although, the authors of the report state that Republicans may still win in the potential tie scenario because Republicans could carry Maine’s second congressional district and the House of Representatives would most likely vote for the Republican candidate since Republicans control a majority of the state legislatures.

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Every 10 years, the U.S. Census impacts the number of electoral college votes allotted per state through apportionment. Some states may gain or lose electoral votes after the census data releases population totals in each state. According to 270 To Win, the 2010 census gave Texas 4 more electoral votes and Florida 2 more votes. States in the Northeast such as New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania witnessed electoral vote losses. The trends for population increase in the Sun Belt and losses in the Northeast are projected to continue in 2020. The outcome of the 2020 census will shift the number of electors up or down in states across the country. The Brennan Center for Justice analyzed how the results of the 2020 Census would impact apportionment for U.S. House seats and ultimately change the number of electoral votes in each state. The rapid growth of population in southern and western states would increase the number of congressional seats in Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado. Meanwhile, states in the northwest and Midwest would witness population losses, which would translate to a loss of congressional seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, and Illinois.

After the 2020 census, apportionment will begin across the country and impact the 2024 election. The 270 To Win electoral college map for 2024 shows Texas gaining 4 more electoral votes, for a total of 42 overall electoral college votes, while Florida will have 31. These states are still projected to favor the Republican party in 2024. However, there is still a chance that the 2024 election could result in a tie. While Republicans would retain control of states with greater electoral votes such as Florida and Texas, there is still a possibility for Democrats to win states back from the 2016 election and create an equal number of electoral votes between the two parties. Using a 270 To Win map of the 2016 election with projected 2024 electoral votes, a tie could occur with the following scenario: If Democrats win Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Maine, and Republicans win New Hampshire, each candidate would receive 269 votes.

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How the Electoral College Works. (2019, Dec 27). Retrieved from