Like we do every four years, America’s getting ready for another Presidential election. But did you know your vote doesn’t go straight to your favorite candidate? That’s because the United States has something called an Electoral College… it’s not a university… but a group of people who do the electing for us. 538 of them, to be exact.

If it’s been a long time since your last civics class, here’s a refresher course. When our founding fathers were writing the Constitution, they decided they didn’t want an ill-informed public to directly elect the President and Vice President, nor did they want to leave it up to Congress. Plus, they wanted every state to have a role in national elections.

So the Founding Fathers came up with a system of “electors” – or pre-selected people from each state who ultimately elect the President and Vice President. According to each state’s representation in Congress, the 538 “electors” are divided among the states: two Senators per state plus the number of Representatives in each state. For example, Florida has 29 electors, while North Carolina has 15, and Utah has six. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a given state gets all of that state’s electoral votes.

Back to our Florida example – The Presidential Ticket that wins the most popular votes in Florida wins all 29 electors – no matter if the candidates win by 5 votes, five thousand, or even five million. This happens in all the other states, except in Nebraska and Maine, where it’s not winner-take-all for electors. Get a majority of those votes – that’s 270 – to win.

What is the point of the Electoral College?

The United States Electoral College is the group of presidential electors required by the Constitution to form every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president and vice president.

Where did it come from?

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 debated three potential ways to pick a president, explains Purdue University civics educator Philip J. VanFossen: election by Congress, selection by state legislatures and a popular election – though the right to vote was generally restricted to white, landowning men.”

The idea of a popular election – where the candidate who got the most votes won – was attractive. But the 11 committee members realized the Southern states would not agree because they wanted to wield more political power based on their ownership of enslaved people.

They ultimately settled, VanFossen writes, on “a system of electors, through which both the people and the states would help choose the president. [It] was a partly national and partly federal solution, and … mirrored other structures in the Constitution.”

The system assigned two U.S. senators to each state and several U.S. representatives based on states’ relative populations – and several electors equal to the sum of the senators and representatives. No state would have fewer than three electors, no matter how few people lived there.

Can a president lose the popular vote but still win the election?

Yes, and that is what happened in 2016: Although Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by almost three million votes, Donald Trump garnered nearly 57 percent of the electoral votes, enough to win the presidency.

The same thing happened in 2000. Although Al Gore won the popular vote, George W. Bush earned more electoral votes after a contested Florida recount and a Supreme Court decision.

And in 1888, Benjamin Harrison defeated the incumbent president, Grover Cleveland, in the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote. Cleveland ran again four years later and won back the White House.

Other presidents who lost the popular vote but won the presidency include John Quincy Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1824 and 1876.

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