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Here's how the Electoral College works in presidential elections

Nevada's six Democratic presidential electors sign their formal

Nevada's six Democratic presidential electors sign their formal ballots for the Electoral College in the state Capitol in Carson City, Nev., in December 2016.   Credit: AP/Scott Sonner

WASHINGTON — As ballot counting continued Wednesday in several states crucial to victory, both presidential campaigns remained fixated on one number — 270, the total Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.

Early voting turnout shattered records nationwide heading into Tuesday's showdown between Republican President Donald Trump and former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, but it’s not the national popular vote alone that guarantees victory.

In 2016, Trump lost the national popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, but he prevailed by securing more Electoral College votes. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College by one elector to Republican George W. Bush. In total, five of the country’s 45 presidents did not win the popular vote but went on to win via the Electoral College.

Each presidential election provides Americans with the quadrennial reminder that the winner is ultimately decided through a centuries-old system that was developed by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Constitution.

Here’s a quick refresher:

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College has been described as a compromise between those framers of the Constitution who wanted Congress to select a president and those who wanted a popular vote to decide the presidency.

Under the current system, established in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, every four years a body of delegates that are appointed by state party officials, typically party leaders and loyalists, meet about a month after Election Day to cast votes that make the election results in their states official. This year the electors will meet in their respective states on Dec. 14.

There are 538 delegates — each state gets apportioned delegates based on the size of their congressional delegation. For example, New York with two senators and 27 U.S. House members has 29 electoral votes in play. The District of Columbia receives 3 electors. An absolute majority — 270 electoral votes — is needed to win.

Most states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, award all the electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in their state. There have been several failed attempts to reform the system by those who argue it does not treat all voters equally, given the extra focus on swing state voters. Critics also note the system was devised in part not to give enslaved Blacks a full vote, only counting them as three-fifths of a person, until that standard was repealed by the 14th Amendment.

"The framers intended that the electors in the college would be more informed and intelligent than the average citizen," said Paul Schumaker, a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Kansas. "They would consider only the most highly qualified candidates from throughout the country. They did that for the first 30 years — the first six presidents were all blue bloods and really experienced political leaders by contemporary standards."

Schumaker said, "Democratic norms evolved that called for, and granted, ordinary citizens having a greater role in selecting the president," including the development of the two main political parties.

Can an elector vote for someone other than the candidate who won the popular vote in their state?

Yes, but it rarely happens, except for the last presidential election when 10 electors cast a ballot for someone other than the candidate who won their state’s popular vote. Before 2016, cases of rogue electors were infrequent and usually limited to one protest vote every few election cycles.

In July, the Supreme Court ruled that states could enforce "faithless electors" laws that penalize those electors who go rogue.

Currently 32 states have laws that penalize "faithless electors" with fines or by invalidating their vote.

New York does not have any such laws on the books, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has supported a national effort aimed at getting states to commit their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

In 2014, Cuomo signed legislation that added New York to the National Popular Vote Compact. But the compact only takes effect once enough states sign on to reach at least 270 electoral votes. So far the effort has only reached 196 electoral votes, according to

Those who support awarding electors based on the national vote argue that presidential candidates often overlook reliably Blue or Red states and focus solely on the handful of battleground states.

"Making the national popular vote a binding one will enable all voices to be heard and encourage candidates to appeal to voters in all states," Cuomo said in December 2016.

What if a candidate doesn’t reach 270 votes?

There is always the possibility the Electoral College system could produce a 269-269 tie. If that were to be the case, it would be up to the newly elected House of Representatives to decide a winner, as laid out in the 12th Amendment.

Democrats maintained control of the House, but under the 12th Amendment, each state delegation to the House is given one vote, with the vote reflecting the choice made by the party with the majority of representatives in the delegation. Republicans currently hold the majority in 26 state delegations compared with 23 held by Democrats. Pennsylvania’s 18 representatives are evenly split.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a Sept. 27 memo to the Democratic Caucus, braced lawmakers for the possibility that the election would be decided by the House and urged Democrats to focus on flipping additional delegations.

"The Constitution says that a candidate must receive a majority of the state delegations to win," Pelosi wrote. "We must achieve that majority of delegations or keep the Republicans from doing so."

What are other key states to watch?

As of Wednesday, both campaigns were closely focused on Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Biden was the projected winner in Wisconsin, leading Trump by more than 20,000 votes, but the Trump campaign announced plans to pursue a recount in the state.

With Biden also leading in Michigan as of Wednesday, the Trump campaign announced plans to file a lawsuit to halt the counting of ballots, claiming that Trump officials were not given proper access to polling sites.

The Trump campaign also announced plans to file a lawsuit in Pennsylvania to stop the vote count there, once again arguing that Trump campaign poll watchers were not given adequate access to monitor the counting of absentee ballots. State Democrats have pushed back on the accusation, noting in part that Philadelphia’s election department has been broadcasting the processing of ballots for public viewing.

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