NATIONWIDE — With just days left until the presidential election and early voting reaching record highs across the country, President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden are making their final pushes to battleground states.
This year, states including Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin have emerged as the so-called "swing states" – those most likely to flip from how they voted in 2016.
Why are the campaigns focusing so heavily on these states? It all comes down to the Electoral College.
In each presidential election, there are 538 electoral votes up for grabs. A candidate must get a simple majority – 270 votes – in order to win the presidency.
Electors, the predesignated people in each state who cast these votes, are allotted to states based on the total population and amount of congressional districts.
While it seems simple, the Electoral College is one of the most divisive and oftentimes confusing parts of the U.S. election process.
Here’s a little bit about why the Electoral College is so important:
The Electoral College was devised at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was a compromise between those who wanted direct popular elections for president and those who preferred to have Congress decide. At a time of little national identity and competition among the states, there were concerns that people would favor their regional candidates and that big states with denser populations would dominate the vote.
The Electoral College has 538 members, with the number allocated to each state based on how many representatives it has in the House, plus its two senators. (The District of Columbia gets three, despite the fact that the home to Congress has no vote in Congress.)
To be elected president, the winner must get at least half plus one — or 270 electoral votes.
This hybrid system means that more weight is given to a single vote in a small state than the vote of someone in a large state, leading to outcomes at times that have been at odds with the popular vote.
In fact, part of a presidential candidate’s campaign strategy is drawing a map of states the candidate can and must win to gather 270 electoral votes.
While the U.S. constitution offers little guidance on who can be an elector, it does contain strict regulations as to who does not qualify for the position. Article II, section 1, clause 2 provides that “no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.”
Choosing of the electors is a two-part process.
The first part of the process, which varies from state to state, consists of statewide political parties selecting a slate of possible electors by either a nomination at a party convention or by a procedural vote from the party’s central committee.
Electors are often high-ranking members of either political party, chosen to honor their service to the government.
The second part of the process occurs during the states’ general elections; when voters cast their ballots for president, they are also selecting the state’s electors to represent their vote in the Electoral College.
Since electors are allocated to states based on the total population and amount of congressional districts, states have widely varying amounts of electoral voters.
For example, the states with smaller populations such as Wyoming — the least populous state with just over half a million people, per 2019 estimates — have three electors each. California, the most heavily populated state with over 39 million people, also has the most electors in the country at 55.
In essence, the Electoral College means that voters do not cast their ballots directly for the president; instead, they choose electors to vote on their behalf.
Individual states get to choose how to allocate the final electoral vote in presidential elections, and most have opted for the “winner-take-all” system. In these states, which include 48 of the U.S. states and Washington, D.C., whoever wins the popular (or people’s) vote wins all of the electoral votes as well.
Say a candidate barely scraped by in California with 51% of the people’s vote — all 55 of the state’s electors would still go to the candidate in question.
Two states, Nebraska and Maine, have chosen a different system of allocating electoral votes. Called the “congressional district” system, the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote receives two electoral votes, with the remaining votes (two in Maine, three in Nebraska) allocated to the popular vote winner in each Congressional district.
This more complex system can — and has — lead to the two states ultimately giving out electoral votes to more than one candidate.
In 2008, then-candidate John McCain won Nebraska’s popular statewide vote as well as two of the state’s three districts, securing three electoral votes. But McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama, won the popular vote in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, thus becoming the first Democrat to secure an electoral vote in the state since 1964.
In 2016, Donald Trump similarly secured the popular vote in Maine’s 2nd Congressional district, gaining an extra electoral vote from his win.
In fact, Trump won the presidency by gaining 304 Electoral College votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227 in 2016, but lost the popular vote by a little over 2%. Seven “faithless electors” voted for other candidates.
It was the fifth time in history that a president lost the popular vote but still gained enough electoral support to win the White House. More Americans — 65,853,514 million of them, per official count — voted for Clinton than any other losing candidate in modern history.
So how did Trump still win?
The mismatch can be explained by Trump’s extremely narrow victories in large states like Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania, according to Pew Research. Despite only winning the states’ popular votes by slim margins, Trump gained all of their electoral votes. As such, Clinton’s popular vote sweep of states like California, Illinois, and New York wasn’t enough to put her Electoral College vote over the required 270 threshold.
Opponents of the Electoral College cite Clinton’s 2016 loss, as well as George W. Bush’s Electoral College win despite Al Gore’s popular vote victory in 2000, as reason to amend the electoral process.
Since 2000, bills have been introduced in every single state to change the process of electing the president, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Initially, most proposed switching to the system used by Maine and Nebraska, while more recent legislation advocates for a complete switch to the nationwide popular vote.
Under this system, a state “promises that it will give all of its electoral votes to the party that wins the national popular vote, rather than the party that wins the state popular vote,” according to the NCSL.
Abolishing the Electoral College altogether wouldn’t be easy, and would require a Constitutional Amendment. Since such a move necessitates a two-thirds vote in both chambers, followed by a ratification by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states, it is unlikely to happen in the near future.
Both Biden and Trump are pushing for, at the very minimum, 270 Electoral College votes.
In the leadup to the election, the campaigns are strategically choosing states to focus on in hopes of swaying voters in their direction, thus securing the necessary electoral votes.
Many of the states that both candidates are focusing on are ones where Trump squeaked by in the 2016 presidential elections.
Both candidates have vowed to win the swing state of Pennsylvania, whose 20 electoral votes went to Trump after he narrowly won the state’s popular vote by less than 1% in 2016. Should either candidate lose the state, their path to victory narrows significantly.
Biden is also focusing heavily on Florida, whose 29 electoral votes went to Trump in 2016 after he won the popular vote by 1.2%. Biden, his running mate, Kamala Harris, and campaign surrogates including former President Barack Obama have made appearances across the Sunshine State in the past ten days.
On Monday, Biden made the surprising announcement that he would visit Georgia on Tuesday, which hasn’t backed a Democrat for president since 1992. The aggressive schedule is a sign of confidence by the Biden team, which is trying to stretch the electoral map and open up more paths to 270 Electoral College votes.
President Trump is holding a whirlwind week of campaign appearances, also targeting many of the states that he narrowly won in 2016 in hopes to secure a second victory. Trump on Monday held rallies across three cities in Pennsylvania, and on Tuesday is traveling to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska.
Wisconsin was among the Great Lakes states that Trump won by less than 1 percentage point over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Biden on Monday announced he would be traveling to Wisconsin himself later this week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.