Americans have been heading to the polls to decide if President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden will be the country's 46th president (Credit:

On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, Americans will decide whether President Donald Trump or Democratic-nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden will lead the country for the next four years. While voter turnout is expected to be amongst the highest in over a century, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a record number of voters to mail their ballots. Experts believe this could delay the outcome of the election by several days, or even weeks.

Though there may be some uncertainty about the results' timing, there is no ambiguity about the process followed to determine the winner.

The Electoral College, not voters, will determine the election results

While winning the citizen vote is important, it will not guarantee either candidate the White House. To become the United States' 46th president, they must win at least 270 electoral college votes. Most years, the opinion of the electoral college — which consists of 538 members, one for each US senator and representative, and three additional electors — align with that of the American people. However, every so often, the popular candidate does not get the necessary electoral votes and loses the election.

The presidential election's outcome will be decided by the Electoral College (Credit: Muhlenberg College)

In 2000, although Democrat candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by more than half a million ballots, George W. Bush became president after he garnered the support of 271 electors. In 2016, President Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million but managed to win the nation's highest office by obtaining 304 electoral votes.

How does the Electoral College work?

Each state has a fixed number of electoral votes, equal to its representation in Congress. California, for example, has 55 because it has 53 House members and two senators. When the general public votes for their choice of president, they are indirectly voting for their “elector.” The representative then casts his or her electoral vote for the most popular candidate. Because of how the number of electors per state is determined, an individual vote from a sparsely populated state is worth more in the final count than a vote from a densely populated state. Hence, the candidates don’t need to win the popular vote by a landslide to garner all the electoral votes the state has to offer.

For instance, in the 2016 elections, President Trump won the support of all of Florida's 29 electors, despite winning just 49 percent of the popular vote. While Hillary Clinton won the popular New York vote by a resounding 64 percent, she could only garner the maximum number of electoral votes available, which coincidentally was also 29.

Aren't electors bound to follow the popular vote?

Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University, says electors are "conduits" for the popular vote in their state. Therefore, they are obliged to vote for the candidate chosen by its residents. However, while thirty-two states and Washington DC require electors to keep their pledge, few hold rogue electors accountable for breaking their promise. There is also no federal law preventing electors from voting for a candidate other than their party's nominee.

Electoral votes allocated to each state and the District of Columbia for the 2020 presidential elections are based on population (Credit: Ali Zifan /Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

A July 2020 ruling by the US Supreme Court stating the electors were constitutionally bound to vote in favor of the popular vote winner may lead to stricter laws. However, Duke University School of Law professor Guy-Uriel Charles says that while states would benefit from imposing sanctions against rogue electors, the ruling does not require them to do so.

Would removing the Electoral College solve the issue?

There have been numerous attempts to abolish the Electoral College by Americans who believe it does not assure victory to the candidate whom most of the country prefers. Opponents say the system also deters people from voting, especially in states that heavily lean toward a certain party. For example, in the largely Democratic California, Republican voters often shy away from casting their ballots.

However, proponents argue that removing the Electoral College would defeat why the founding fathers installed the law in the US Constitution — to ensure people in less populated rural areas would have an equal say in choosing their leader as those living in densely-populated areas. They also argue that without the Electoral College in place, presidential candidates would concentrate only on winning the vote in high-population states, such as California, New York, and Texas. Besides, the system has only failed to work five times in the past 244 years.

Even if everyone agrees to get rid of the Electoral College, it will take years to amend the US Constitution. Therefore, we can only hope that the Electoral College will respect the wishes of the American voters and help them elect the leader of their choice for the next four years.