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5 Big Questions About the Electoral College

In the final weeks before the presidential election, you can expect to hear a lot about the Electoral College. It’s not a school or even a place. It’s the unique way that the U.S. elects its president.

1. Wait, don’t the millions of voters across the country pick the president? 

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Yes, but not directly. On November 3, voters will have their ballots counted as part of the popular vote. Most will select Joe Biden’s or Donald Trump’s name on their ballots. But technically all these votes will go toward choosing a small group of people called electors. They are people in each state who have pledged to vote for a specific candidate.

2. How many electors does each state get? 

The number of electors is based on the state’s total number of senators and representatives in Congress. Each state has two senators. The number of representatives is based on population. States with more people have more representatives—and more electors. Washington, D.C., isn’t a state, but it gets three electors. In all, there are 538 electors. 

3. How does a candidate win?

A candidate who gets a majority, or more than half, of the 538 electoral votes is elected president. The magic number to reach is 270. 

Nearly every state has a “winner take all” rule. That means the candidate who wins the most popular votes in a state is awarded ALL of its electoral votes. 

4. Why is this system so complicated? And is it fair?

In 1787, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had to decide who would elect the president. Should Congress do it? The state governments? Or should regular citizens pick the president in a popular vote? As a compromise, the Framers came up with the system we still have today.

It’s possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election. That has happened five times, including in 2016. Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the presidency with 304 electoral votes. Because the candidate with the most popular votes doesn’t always win, some Americans think the Electoral College isn’t the fairest way to pick a president. 

5. Which candidate has the edge this year?

It’s too early to tell. But as Scholastic News went to press, the latest polls gave a good idea of which candidate, Biden or Trump, is expected to win in 37 states. The race was too close to call in the 13 other states, though. They’re known as swing states because they could “swing” to either candidate. (These states are also often called battleground states.) Neither candidate can reach 270 electoral votes without winning several swing states. 

Jim McMahon/MapMan®

YOUR TURN: Check out the map. How’s the race shaping up where you live?

1. How does the article’s question-and-answer format help readers?

2. Who are electors?

3. What information can you learn from the map on page 5?

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