What is the Electoral College and How Does it Work?

The process of choosing electors can be an “insider’s game,” said Kimberly Wehle, a professor at the University of Baltimore and the author of “What You Need to Know About Voting and Why.” They are often state legislators, party leaders or donors, she said.

The important number is 270. A total of 538 electoral votes are in play across all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The total number of electoral votes assigned to each state varies depending on population, but each state has at least three, and the District of Columbia has had three electors since 1961.

Most are, and it helps to think of voting on a state-by-state basis, Professor Amar said.

“It’s just like in tennis,” he said. “It’s how many sets you win and not how many games or points you win. You have to win the set, and in our system, you have to win the state.”

Two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which rely on congressional districts to divvy up electoral votes. The winner of the state’s popular vote gets two electoral votes, and one vote is awarded to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district.

There are arguments that the states with smaller populations are overrepresented in the Electoral College, because every state gets at least 3 electors regardless of population. In a stark example, sparsely populated Wyoming has three votes and a population of about 580,000, giving its individual voters far more clout in the election than their millions of counterparts in densely populated states like Florida, California and New York. And the American citizens who live in territories like Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands are not represented by any electors.

“When you talk about the Electoral College shaping the election, it shapes the election all the time because it puts the focus on certain states and not others,” said Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard University.

For years there have been debates about abolishing the Electoral College entirely, with the 2016 election bringing the debate back to the surface. It was even a talking point among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.