If you’ve paid attention to the results of this year’s presidential election, you’ve probably heard a lot about the Electoral College.
It’s how Donald Trump was elected president, even though he lost the national vote by more than two million votes. But most of us don’t know exactly what the electoral college is, or why we have it.
Here in Austin, the Electoral College is a source of frustration. The city leans Democratic, but the state favors Republicans.
This means if you vote for a Democrat in a presidential election here, your vote may feel meaningless.
“Well, this is a Republican state so, with that being said, I believe that’s the way it was going to go anyway,” said Tara Waters, a Democrat living in Austin who voted for Hillary Clinton. “And how I really honestly feel about it is that, you know, it was fixed before voting even started.”
The Electoral College is this old system we have in place for making sure the views of rural states aren’t drowned out by big cities. Instead of winning the most votes nationwide, a candidate has to win 270 electoral votes.
States have as many electoral votes as they have congressional members. So, if candidate X wins the popular vote in your state, it's expected that candidate X will get those electoral votes. Waters says the system makes her feel like her vote doesn’t even matter, and, As you can imagine, the sentiment shared by Waters can affect turnout.
In fact, according to data compiled by NPR following the election, swing states had higher voter turnout this year.
Texas, however, had among the lowest turnout in the country – fifth from the bottom.
Rob Richie with FairVote says part of the reason this happens is because the Electoral College makes some votes less valuable to campaigns.
“They actually don’t really care in 35 states or so,” Richie said. “Or they certainly aren’t lifting a finger to encourage participation beyond generic mentioning it on a national media appearance or so on.”
Austinite Kate Sullivan, who isn’t a Republican, says because of the state's overwhelmingly Republican bent, she doesn't look to the top of the ballot when she votes.
“Well, there are still local elections that are important and congressional elections, so that’s the primary reason I vote,” she said.
Richie says that’s the message voters need to hear every four years when they’re mulling over whether it’s worth voting.
“It is true that in a lot of states the congressional race isn’t very close and the senate race isn’t very close, you know your state legislative race might not be contested,” he explained. “But there is usually something.”
Richie and his group think changing the electoral process altogether will make the biggest difference in getting voters to the polls.
Right now, FairVote is encouraging states to pass laws that would require electors to give their votes winner of the national popular vote – no matter how the state votes.