How the Swing States Work

By: Ed Grabianowski & Patty Rasmussen  | 

Indirect Vote and Electoral College

swing states
In the United States, presidents are chosen via the electoral college voting system, which isn't the same as the popular vote. Octavio Jones/Getty Images

We're taught that electing the president is a simple process. Everybody votes, and whoever gets the most votes becomes president, right? That method, called the popular vote, was one of several that the Founding Fathers of the United States considered when they made up the rules for presidential elections more than 200 years ago. But they didn't pick the popular vote method. They went with an indirect system (and one that's somewhat controversial) called the Electoral College.

It's easier to understand the Electoral College if you remember that it isn't really a national election — it's a whole bunch of separate state elections. Each state gets a certain number of electors:


  • one for each senator (which means two, because each state has two senators)
  • one for each representative (which depends on the state's population as determined by the census)

Every state, except Maine and Nebraska, follow the "winner-take-all system." In those 48 states, the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state also wins all the state's electoral votes. (It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidential election.)

Maine and Nebraska, however, follow what's called the "district system." Those states award two electoral votes to their statewide winner, but then allocate the remainder of their electoral votes (the states have a combined total of nine) based on the winner of each of their congressional districts.