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Electoral college: A unique system to elect US presidents

  • Published at 05:54 pm October 31st, 2020
US  President Donald Trump
Donald Trump is one of two US presidents elected in the past five elections despite losing the popular vote Reuters

Majority of US citizens in favor of abolishing the system

It may be surprising to many that a candidate cannot be elected as the president of the United States of America even if he or she receives majority of the votes nationwide. This is because a US president is not directly elected by the votes, but rather through a unique system called the electoral college.

When the US voters vote, they do so to elect electors in respective states. These electors comprise the electoral college, a system that does not exist anywhere in the world. 

The number of electors to elect a president is currently 538. This figure represents 438 representatives from 50 US states and the District of Colombia (DC), and 100 senators from 50 states (two from each state). The representation of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the US Congress, is based on the population of the states. On the other hand, the number of members of the Senate, the upper house, remains the same.

For example, California is the largest state and has 53 members of the House of Representatives. With two senate seats, it has a total of 55 electoral college votes. With respect to population, Wyoming is the smallest state and gains three electoral college votes – two senators and one member of the House of Representatives. As it does not have a state status, DC does not have any senator and elects three non-voting members of the lower house.

All but two US states follow the “winners take all” formula, which means if a candidate receives 50.1% of the votes in California, he or she earns all the 55 electoral college votes. Nebraska and Maine are the two exceptions.

Under the US system, if a person wins 12 states that hold more than 270 electoral college votes by the thinnest possible margin and loses by broad margins in the remaining 38 states and DC, he or she will be elected the president.

The members of the electoral college, who represent different segments of society, convene in December every four years to deliver their votes on behalf of their respective states. Apart from a few rare exceptions, the electoral college members vote in line with the voting in their states.


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This unique system has so far deprived five candidates of the presidency. In the last five elections, two candidates with fewer popular votes were elected as the president, including incumbent Donald Trump.

The electoral college system has been controversial in the US for decades and many attempts were made to get rid of it, Mathew Stirling, a professor of history and social policy at the Harvard University, told a virtual event titled “2020 US Presidential Election Reporting Seminar.”

He added that the system remains in place despite opposition as it is very difficult to amend the US constitution.

The majority of the US voters are in favour of abolishing the system, he further said.

The East-West Center, a US organization, is organizing the 14-day seminar from October 25 to November 7. Twelve journalists, including one from Dhaka Tribune, are participating in the event virtually from across the globe.

Taking part in the event, two university students also voiced their opposition to the system.

The candidate receiving more popular votes should be the president, they said.

The opponents of the system argue that the electoral college does not ensure that every voice is heard and therefore runs counter to the spirit of democracy.

Whatever the opinions of the people are, it is unlikely that the system will go away anytime soon unless there is a bipartisan consensus on it.

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