America counts its elections differently. Here's how it works and why they do it



There’s just one more day to go until Americans decide whether Donald Trump gets to stay in the White House for another four years.

Frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden leads in the national polls by as many as ten points.

But this close to election day, popular support in the national polls starts to mean less and less.

US Presidential elections aren’t the same as our elections – for a start they vote for their Congressmen and women separately from the president.

And even then it’s not quite as simple as “first past the post”.

It may seem a pretty convoluted way to decide who runs the country.

But it’s not that hard to get your head around, and it mostly makes sense.

You can even be the most popular person at the election night party by explaining it to everybody else.

Here’s our guide to how America will decide who won.

Wait, they don’t just count the votes and whoever gets the most wins?

Nope. And you can (mostly) blame this guy.

The US founding fathers decided they wanted a “buffer” between the population and the selection of a President. They feared a tyrant would be able to manipulate public opinion and seize power.

You can decide for yourselves how well you think that’s working out so far.

They also had to make a compromise with some of the small states, who felt they would lose influence because of their small population.

So how does it work?

Each state gets a certain number of “electors” – essentially votes – which is roughly proportional to the size and population of the state.

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Most states award their electoral votes on a “winner take all” basis. So if most people vote Democrat in Florida, the Democrats get their 29 electoral votes.

Maine and Nebraska dish their votes out proportionally.

In total there are 538 electoral votes spread across the states, and a candidate needs a majority of 270 of them to win.

If they get less than a majority, Congress gets to pick.

Technically the electors are actually people, who cast a vote each for president and vice president, but in reality, they usually go with how the state votes. There have only been a handful of occasions where an elector has gone rogue, and it’s never decided an election.

Has anyone ever won the popular vote and lost the election?

There certainly have. In fact, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.8 million votes.

Then there was the notorious 2000 election, where Al Gore won the popular vote by about half a million votes, but still lost out to George W Bush when the courts decided he’d won the state of Florida by 537 votes.

Before that, Benjamin Harrison denied Grover Cleveland a second term in 1888, despite getting a narrow majority in the popular vote.

Rutherford B Hayes was outpolled by Samuel J Tilden in the 1876 election, but ended up striking a bargain and winning the presidency after a massive row over electoral votes.

And John Quincy Adams (1824) won neither the popular contest nor the electoral vote – but because neither won a majority of electoral votes the House of Representatives got to pick the winner.

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They decided to make Adams the President, and rival Andrew Jackson was rather upset about it. He proclaimed the election of Adams a “corrupt bargain.”

Why will it take so long to get a result in this election?

The number of people voting by mail is expected to increase dramatically this year.

Around a quarter of votes were cast by mail in the 2016 election.

Some states require a reason for allowing a postal vote, others do not.

And six states are planning to hold ‘all mail’ ballots in the 2020 contest.

In some states, ballots have to be received before election day – which means they can also be counted in a more timely manner.

But some 20 states will count ballots which are received after election day, as long as they are postmarked by election day.

So millions of valid ballots may not even arrive for counting until days later.

How many votes does each state get?

US State

Electoral Votes US State Electoral Votes
Alabama 9 Montana 3
Alaska 3 Nebraska 5
Arizona 11 Nevada 6
Arkansas 6 New Hampshire 4
California 55 New Jersey 14
Colorado 9 New Mexico 5
Connecticut 7 New York 29
Delaware 3 North Carolina 15
Florida 29 North Dakota 3
Georgia 16 Ohio 18
Hawaii 4 Oklahoma 7
Idaho 4 Oregon 7
Illinois 20 Pennsylvania 20
Indiana 11 Rhode Island 4
Iowa 6 South Carolina 9
Kansas 6 South Dakota 3
Kentucky 8 Tennessee 11
Louisiana 8 Texas 38
Maine 4 Utah 6
Maryland 10 Vermont 3
Massachusetts 11 Virginia 13
Michigan 16 Washington 12
Minnesota 10 West Virginia 5
Mississippi 6 Wisconsin 10
Missouri 10 Wyoming 3

And just to be awkward, two of those states – Maine and Nebraska – can split their electoral votes.

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Other states award their votes on a ‘winner take all’ basis. Both states award two votes to the winner of the statewide poll, and one each per voting district.

This has happened a grand total of once ever in each state.

Nebraska was split in 2008, and Maine awarded one vote to Donald Trump in 2016.





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