The American Voting System, Put Simply

Hillary Clinton received more votes from US citizens than Donald Trump. Yet looking at the result, and Trump appears to have won with a landslide victory. What? How? Why? Don’t worry, we were confused too. Here is the US Presidential Voting System Put Simply.

Basic facts

  • Voting takes place every 4 years
  • First Tuesday (after the first Monday) in November
  • vote for their Congressmen and women separately from the president
  • System designed to avoid manipulation by tyrant to get power
  • Also wanted to ensure smaller states were not neglected and given a voice

How it works

  • US is divided into states
  • Each state is assigned a number of “electors”
  • Electors – directly vote for President and Vice-President on behalf of citizens
  • Number of electors depends on population size within the state
  • For example: populous California = 55 electors
  • Alternatively, Delaware only has 3 electors due to its small population size
  • Citizens within states cast their votes
  • Candidate that receives most votes in a state receives all elector votes
  • Couple of states share out votes proportionally (Maine and Nebraska) but most elector votes are allocated on a “winner takes all” basis
  • Very rare that elector votes for different candidate to winner of state (never been an occasion where this has taken place and affected overall result)
  • To become president, a candidate needs to have the majority of electors
  • There were 538 electors in the 2016 election
  • Hence, a president needed 270 electors
  • If no-one gets a majority, congress gets to pick


  • Trump received 306 elector votes compared to Clinton who received 232 votes
  • Clinton popular vote total = 61,201,031 popular votes
  • Trump popular vote total = 61,201,031 popular votes

What this means in practice

  • All votes do not matter equally
  • Political geography influences the result
  • Clinton with had a higher popular vote share than Trump
  • However, Trump received substantially more elector votes

Further reading

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