Future Lawyer Blog

The US Election of 2020: ‘Electoral College’ and ‘Swing States’ Explained

On the 4th November 2020, the citizens of the United States of America went to the polls to vote in what one could argue to have been one of the most important elections of our generation. Spearheading the Republican Party for another 4 years in office was President Donald Trump, with Joe Biden representing the Democrats. Why is the US Election so important if I live 4000 miles away? The USA is and for a long time has been, heralded as the “leader of the free world”. It is a key player in world affairs and has developed diplomatic relations with almost all sovereign states of the world. This was possibly one of the fiercest elections in modern history. A lot of us will already know that as of the 7th November, Joe Biden secured the necessary majority to claim the presidency. However, how many of us are scratching our heads trying to answer that one question – how does it all work? Short answer is, it is complicated. I will impart some of my knowledge and break down the mystery that is US politics.

Who were the candidates?

The Republican candidate Donald Trump, current President, was in the running for another 4 years. The Republican Party is the ideologically conservative party in the US. The more liberal-leaning Democrats were represented by Joe Biden – former Vice President under Obama with experience in Congress since the 1970s.

What is the ‘Electoral College’?

The Electoral College is a group of representatives or ‘electors’, required under the US Constitution to elect the President and Vice President. 538 ‘electors’ are chosen by voters. Electors are made up of 100 members from the Senate (upper legislative chamber), 435 from the House of Representatives (lower legislative chamber) and 3 from the District of Columbia. The number of electors in each State are made up of 2 Senators alongside the Representatives – the number of which are proportionate to its population. These electors represent either one of the presidential candidates in their State.

For each State, there is a specified number of points known as ‘electoral votes’ available to win, simply put. The number of electoral votes is not equal for each State – the bigger the State, the more electoral votes there are up for grabs. For example, California is a state with the highest population of 39,512,223 (estimated 1 July 2019 – see tables on census.gov) and therefore is worth 55 electoral votes. Whereas Wyoming is represented by 3 electoral votes (2 senators and 1 HoR), with the smallest population of just 578,759 (estimated 1 July 2019 – see tables on census.gov). Furthermore, if ‘candidate y’ wins at least 50%+1 of the votes for ‘State x’ worth 5 electoral votes, he has won all of those votes and therefore that State – ‘winner takes all’. With that being said, Maine and Nebraska are two States which allow for electoral college representation to be shared amongst the two candidates. To win the presidency, a candidate must have won at least 270 electoral votes. As of the 13 November 2020*, Biden secured 290 electoral votes, making him the 46th President-Elect of the USA.

Criticisms of the Electoral College

If a candidate wins the ‘popular vote’, this does not necessarily mean that he has won the presidency. In the 2016 Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton won 48% of the popular vote while Trump fell short at 45.9%, yet he claimed the Presidency with 306 Electoral College Votes. This is possibly due to Trump’s popularity in smaller states to which the system was designed to give disproportionate power, for the fear of the Founding Fathers that their votes would be swept away by those in larger States. 

The ‘winner-takes-all’ system means that any votes for the other candidate are wasted as the winner usually collects all of the Electoral Votes for that State. We saw this in Wisconsin at the beginning of this month, where Biden won a narrow lead of 0.7% (20,540 votes) over Trump, yet took all 10 of the Electoral College Votes for the State (Associated Press – ap.org).

The Electoral College is also unfair to candidates outside of the respective Democrat and Republican parties. In 2000, the Green Party’s Ralph Nader won 3 million votes in the popular vote yet did not win a single Electoral College Vote. With that being said, ideological pressure groups such as the NRA (National Rifle Association) and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) flourish in the absence of third parties.

This system of voting also lays bare the fusion of powers in US democracy, as States have an indirect impact over who the electors are. Many electors are often members of the State legislatures. Therefore, a State which voted Democrat but has a Republican-controlled legislature could choose Republican electors and therefore act against the popular vote.

What are ‘swing states’?

Following on from the last point about the disadvantage the Electoral College poses to third parties, it goes without saying that each State is dominated by one of the two major parties. ‘Strongholds’ are therefore States which traditionally and consistently vote for a specific party and very rarely vote otherwise.

States such as California and New York have consistently supported the Democratic presidential candidates since 1992, while Republicans have found heavy support in Texas and other southern states. ‘Swing states’, however, are States which could be won by either Republican or Democratic candidates. In fiercely competitive elections such as the most recent, such States are targeted through more campaigning by both candidates. It is apparent that winning the Electoral College Votes for these States, one could win the White House. It therefore goes without saying that both campaigns spend considerably more money on their campaigns in such states.

Pennsylvania, Biden’s home state, was key in securing his victory being worth 20 Electoral College Votes and the Democratic candidate spent approximately $9.8 million in television ads just for that State. In 2016, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan voted for Trump – by winning these states back, Biden effectively reinforced his support across the East Coast. This secured his majority of 279. Georgia is a swing state where counting has not officially ended. It is currently leaning towards Biden – if secured, it will be the first time since 1992. And he will have secured a total of 306 electoral votes – the same amount won by Trump in 2016.

Biden has won, what now?

Joe Biden is now President-Elect and is expected to take office on 20 January 2021. He cannot immediately assume office until then as a transition period is necessary to appoint members of his cabinet and other members of staff. He revealed his new ‘Covid-19’ taskforce which would help him to deal with the current global pandemic.


Whatever your political standing, it is fair to say that this election was extremely intense, especially in the midst of an increasingly partisan environment, as well as a global pandemic. While Biden may have won, we can expect to see challenges to his presidency both at home and around the world.

*correct at the time of writing*

Thanks to Abdullah Safwaan Al-Khayr for this very helpful explainer. Abdullah is a second year law student at City, University of London. He recently joined the Lawbore team and is excited to showcase his interest in current affairs as he believes such awareness is central to pursuing a legal career in the future.

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