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US Election 2020 explained: How does the electoral system work?

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are going head-to-head in the final debate. Source: AAP.

Polling suggests that Democrat candidate Joe Biden is well ahead of Republican President Donald Trump. But the polls have been wrong before, and the US presidential race is far from a straightforward popularity contest.

Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote for the Democrats in 2016, as did Al Gore in 2000, and neither became president. 

The US has an indirect democracy, meaning that the president is actually elected by a process called the Electoral College. 

Across the US, there are 538 total electors. The number of electors each state has is determined by the number of people it has in Congress. Essentially, the more populous the state, the more electors it has. 

In every state, each political party has its own ‘slate’ of electors. On Election Day, US citizens are essentially voting for which slate of electors will represent their state. It’s a winner takes all scenario where the candidate that wins a state claims all of that state’s electors to count towards their total.

For example if Donald Trump wins the state of Oklahoma this year, even by the smallest of margins, he would claim all of the state’s seven electoral votes to count towards his total.

The candidate that secures the magic number of 270 or more electoral votes wins the presidency.

Dr. Mark J Rozell  from George Mason University in Virginia explains how the Electoral College effectively turns the national race for the presidency into a series of micro-contest fought out in a handful of states.

“We elect presidents State by State, we don't have, as you know, a national popular vote for the presidency. We have a national popular vote total that says that Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes than did Donald Trump or in Year 2000 that Al Gore got a half million more votes than George W. Bush, but we have what is called a State by State winner takes all system where each State is assigned a number of electors to our Electoral College and the candidate who wins the popular vote within each State takes 100% of the electors to the Electoral College. And that is why mathematically, it is possible for someone to win the popular vote but lose the presidency.” 

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