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What is the Electoral College?

In US presidential elections, the winner is decided not by popular vote but by an institution called the Electoral College.

All 50 states are allotted votes in the Electoral College according to the number of representatives they have in Congress. Congressional representatives are allotted largely in proportion to states’ populations, so more populous states have more “electors” in the Electoral College. California, the state with the largest population, receives 55 electoral votes, while states with the smallest populations receive just three electoral votes.

Although it has only one Congressional representative, Washington D.C. is afforded as many electors as the least populous state. As a result, the national capital currently gets three electors.

The states cast all of their electoral college votes for the candidate that wins the state-wide popular vote (with the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, which follow similar but slightly different systems). Whether a state is decided by one vote or one million, all of that state’s electoral college votes are awarded to the winning candidate.

As a result, it is possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but still lose the election. In 2000, for example, Al Gore received the most votes but lost the Electoral College to George W. Bush.

Written and produced by Harry Stevens