In the 2000 US presidential election, the Democratic candidate got half a million more votes than the Republican. The Democrat lost. Sixteen years later, a similar thing happened again. In the US, if you run for president, it does not actually matter how many people in the country vote for you. What matters instead is an arcane system for selecting America’s head of state called the Electoral College.
The Electoral College is the reason the US has something called “swing states,” and it’s the reason those places get to decide the future of the country. It’s the reason presidential candidates rarely campaign in the country’s biggest cities. More recently, it’s also the reason that Republican candidates have been able to eke out victories in the presidential election without actually getting the most votes.
The Electoral College makes some Americans’ votes more powerful than others. In fact, that’s part of the reason we have it to begin with; in the country’s early years, the Electoral College helped give the votes of Southern white people more weight than the votes of Northerners. The idea at its core — that certain votes simply matter more than others — is baked into the American tradition. In the 2020 election, it may decide the winner.
The historian Alexander Keyssar’s book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? takes you through the history and function of the Electoral College:
For the bite-size version of that history, Keyssar also wrote this piece in the New York Times.
The Times has a great interactive feature on where the 2020 candidates actually spent money.
Pew has a breakdown of how democracies around the world elect their head of state, which really shows what an oddball the US is.
More on why today’s Electoral College gives Republican presidential candidates a structural advantage.