The electoral system in the United States


The recent presidential election in the Unites States is still fresh. On one hand, we have the eccentric republican candidate, Donald Trump, and on the other hand, we have the democrat candidate of the “establishment”, Hillary Clinton. Both carried on their backs several controversies and on the different TV debates, neither of them doubted to attack each other with them. Finally, on the 8th of November it was shown that, once again, the polls did not hit the target and Donald Trump kept winning important states (such as Ohio and Florida) until he reached, and surpassed, the 270 electoral votes. The stock exchange and the papers from all around the world shivered when they heard the news. In this post, I don’t expect to explain the causes of Trump’s triumph (although it is likely that we do it in the future), but to highlight the peculiarities of the workings of the American electoral system, some curiosities and to explain several issues.

A little bit of background…


Dear readers, I encourage you to travel to the past but without moving from where you are and to imagine the United States of the XVIII century with its long distances and its poor communication resources. Moreover, there wasn’t a truly deep sense of national identity. With this conditions the Founding Fathers in order to avoid the campaigns to be focused on the biggest states and to avoid that these states accumulated all the power, created a model in which the president and the vice-president were elected through the vote of the citizens but indirectly.

The American electoral system

We mustn’t forget that the United States was one of the first republics of the world and that, in turn, those who defend the American model claim that it is a democratic reference. Evidently, we cant’s deny that this system is quite complex, but we are going to explain, in an easy way, how it works and, in turn, to call its supposed democracy into question.

Firstly, it is a two-party system (the Republican Party and the Democratic Party). There are other parties such as the Green Party and the Socialist Party, but they hardly have a voice and they end up pushed into the background by the two main parties. The American citizens don’t vote directly for their future president. Then, who are they electing with their vote? They are electing the 538 members of the Electoral Collage.

This 538 electoral votes are distributed between the 50 states that form the United States of America and Washington D.C. (it’s not a state, but it has 3 electors). The number of electors in each state is proportional to the number of inhabitants and in each state there are always at least three delegates. Let’s see a map to understand it better.

Distribution of the electoral votes.

You can see that there states like California or Texas where the number of electors is quite high. Therefore, there are some states that are more important than others and they are going to be decisive for the power games that take place during the electoral campaign.

Who wins in every state?

The candidate who wins in popular votes in a certain state, even if it is by a small difference (for example 50.1% of the votes against 49.9% of the opponent’s votes) wins all the electoral votes. Do you find this democratic? There are two exceptions, in the states of Maine and Nebraska the votes are distributed proportionally to each candidate. This is the reason why a candidate can obtain the presidency even though he or she has less popular votes than the adversary. A situation that has happened in several occasions in the History of the United States, like the case of the last elections between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The candidate that obtains at least 270 electoral votes will be the next president of the first world power.

Trump beat his opponent, Hillary, in electoral votes, but not in popular votes.

Those who criticise the American electoral model are keen to highlight that even though a candidate loses in 39 of the 50 states, that candidate can win as long as he wins in 11 key states (besides the 3 electors of the D.C. District). In my opinion this system makes the votes of those who live in a key state more valuable than the votes of those who don’t live in one of them.

Who are left outside?

The 4 million of inhabitants of the Virgin Islands of the United States, Guam, Puerto Rico and Northern Mariana Islands. All these territories depend on the United States, although they have a different kind of dependency status. The first two are territories not incorporated to the United States, and the last two have a commonwealth status. There are some differences between these territories but I’m not going to say much about it, just that neither of their inhabitants can select the president of America.

What is curious about it is that those American citizens who live outside their country can vote for the state in which they previously lived. However, if they move to any of the territories previously mentioned their right to vote is revoked. What is even more curious is that since 1997 NASA astronauts can vote from space (the first one to do so was David Wolf), but these 4 million people can’t. Really curious and not democratic at all.


Here I have given you a simple view of how this peculiar electoral system works. Now I ask you some questions so that you leave some comments and we can all discuss about this topic. Can it be considered democratic an electoral system that leave out almost four million of inhabitants? Do you think there is a possible solution in order to eliminate the gap of importance between the states? It is true that there have been some attempts to change the Constitution of the United States, but its complexity and the lack of interest haven’t make its reorganisation possible. In spite of its complexity, do you think it is necessary a change in the electoral system and therefor in the Constitution of the United States? This is it, as always enjoy, learn and participate.

Translated from the original article written by Ricardo Cuéllar González:


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