The Electoral College can pick a president who got fewer votes. Here's why and how.

On a historic Election Day, one of the most confusing and controversial parts of the nation's political system is yet again front-and-center: the Electoral College. 

It's the system that, four years ago, made Donald Trump president even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote handily.

That's because the Electoral College, established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, determines the winner of the presidential election.

But, your vote will impact what the Electoral College does. Here's a quick refresher on the subject, which you may not have given serious thought to since middle school:

Why do they call it the Electoral College?

Merriam-webster.com says "electoral" likely makes sense, as the term is clearly related to the election. But what about "college?"

Historically, "college" has meant "various groups of people who are associated by a common pursuit or have common interests or duties."

In this case, those groups of people are the electors.

What are the basics of the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is made up of 538 delegates: people who cast the votes that formally elect the president.

The total number of electors represent the total number of U.S. senators, 100 (two per state); the total number of state representatives, 435; and three more electors for the District of Columbia.

"When we vote for president, we are actually voting for the electors of our state to go vote for the president,'' said Erin Merrill, a middle school teacher in Manassas, Virginia, and one of three recipients for the American Civic Education Teachers Award in 2020. "But most of us don’t even know who the electors of our state are unless we’ve done our research."

The state parties appoint electors to cast the electoral ballots on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December of the presidential election – about a month after the Americans cast their ballots in the popular vote.

How are the votes divided? Why is it 'winner take all'?

The Electoral College is widely known as a "winner take all" system because the winner of the popular vote in each state gets all of the state’s electoral votes. That is, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which award their electoral votes more proportionally.

How is a winner selected by the Electoral College?

It takes 270 or more electoral votes to win a presidential election.

In 2016, Trump won with 304 electoral votes. It was the fifth time in American history that the winner of the presidential election lost the popular vote. And it was the second time since 2000 – when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the Electoral College – that a candidate lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.

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