What Is the Meaning of the Popular Vote

What is the meaning of the popular vote, and how does it differ from the electoral vote? To answer these questions, you need to know a bit about our method of electing a president.

Equal Representation
The popular vote is the actual number of ballots that are cast by the voters for a candidate. In any other election, voters cast their ballots, and election officials count them up and the candidate with the most votes wins. This is how we choose senators, governors, mayors and representatives. When it comes to the presidency, however, we use the Electoral College to add a measure of fairness for all states.

A presidential election is not a nationwide election, so much as it is 50 individual state elections. When voters cast their ballots for president in their state, the votes are counted up and the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state wins the electoral votes for that state. These votes are cast by a group of electors in each state who travel to Washington shortly after the general election to participate in the Electoral College. The number of electoral votes in each state is determined by the number of senators and representatives for that state: one electoral vote for each member of the Senate and House of Representatives. There are 538 electoral votes all together, and a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes to win the election.

The process gets even more complicated when you consider that winning the popular vote in each state means that the candidate wins all the electoral votes for that state, even if they do not win by a large margin. If this happens in several states, it is entirely possible for a candidate to win the national popular vote, but still not win the election because they weren't able to win enough electoral votes. This has happened four times in our history: in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.

The idea behind the Electoral College is to provide protection for small states. In theory, if only the popular vote was used, states with large populations, such as California, Texas and New York, would be able to choose the president in every election. That could lead candidates to ignore the needs of states with smaller populations, like New Mexico and Iowa.

Still Necessary?
In recent years, there has been great debate over whether the Electoral College is an effective method of choosing a president, or whether it's still needed at all. Many people consider a process where the President can be elected without winning the popular vote to be unfair. Critics also charge that the needs of the various states are shared, rather than unique, so a president who ignored certain states would be harming America as a whole. The debate goes on, but for the moment, the Electoral College remains as the way we choose our presidents.

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