The Magic Number Is … 270?
Here’s what’s going to happen on election night, November 8:
We’ll be glued to our screens … doing math in order to find out whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the new president of the United States.
What’s math got to do with it? When it comes down to it … everything.
We don’t just count up the votes one-by-one and see who earned the most votes in the country (that would be wayyyy too easy!), though that also happens. It’s called the “popular vote.”
What really counts is something called the “electoral vote.”
Voting for the leader of our country actually happens state-by-state-by-state-by-state…
The more people in your state, the more influence your state has, the more “electoral votes” it gets … the bigger the number for your state in the map below.
California, Texas, New York and Florida have the biggest populations so they’re the big prizes on election night. You can see which state counts for what in the map below.
If you add them all up the total for the entire country is 538.
When people in a particular state vote, whichever candidate gets more votes wins ALL of the electoral votes for that state.
Even if one candidate only got slightly more votes than the other it’s “winner-takes-all.” The winner cancels out the losing candidate’s votes in that state and gets the whole “electoral vote” number.
(Well, except in Nebraska and Maine.)
Here’s a hypothetical example for the sake of how it works:
If you look at New Hampshire on the map, it’s worth 4 electoral votes. So, if more people vote for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire than for Donald Trump, she gets all 4 points.
If more people vote for Donald Trump in Oklahoma than for Hillary Clinton, then he gets all 7 electoral college votes.
More people from Maryland vote for Mrs. Clinton? She gets 10 more. Add New Hampshire’s 4 to Maryland’s 10 … for a total of 14.
Kansas goes to Trump? 6 more electoral votes. Kansas’ 6 added with Oklahoma’s 7 totals 13.
And all night long, as the results from each state comes in, the points will be added up.
The first candidate to get to just over half of the total of 538 — so, 270 — will be the next president of the United States!
The electoral vote numbers actually represent special “electoral voters” who get to officially vote for the next president on his or her state’s behalf. It’s a formality, but it’s how the system works.
What if … ?
Yes, there are a lot of what if this happens and what if that happens. And the whole election process is way more complicated than is laid out here. But the what ifs don’t happen too often. And if one happens, we’ll be sure to write about it! But if you’d like to read more about the what if possibilities (and lots of other interesting and important facts) you can click here for the National Archives and Records Administrations Frequently Asked Questions page.
Do we have a sense of how it’s going so far?
Yes. But it ain’t over til it’s over, as the saying goes. Just ask Al Gore . In 2000, the whole country went to bed thinking he won the election, including him. Turns out he didn’t (even though he won the popular vote, the most votes in total). The Supreme Court had to make the final decision! And it went in favor of his opponent, George W. Bush.
We know from how states have voted in the past … how they’re likely to vote in the future in many cases.
We also use polls, asking people how they’re planning to vote.
These are two respected websites that use that kind of information to predict the outcome.
Fivethirtyeight.com (has an interactive, color-coded map)
But, there are some states that could surprise us — states that could go either for one candidate or the other and are going to keep us in suspense until election night. These are called “swing states” or “battleground” states.
Right now they are: Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
And since Florida has one of the highest electoral votes AND it’s a swing state … election night could be a late one.