How To Become President of the United States: 101

The following is my first attempt at showing some real-life applications of statistics.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (which I seriously hope you have not been because that’s dangerous), you should be well aware that the past week has been rather significant for U.S. politics. I am by no means an expert in politics and my friends will tell you that any day of the week. However, I am proud of the fact that I have some sort of understanding of how the U.S. Presidential Election works. It’s a complicated process that is very different from our own electoral system in Ireland. My nana asked me to explain the system to her a few weeks ago, so this article is targeted solely at her.

Firstly, there are a few basic requirements to begin your journey to presidency - you must be a natural born citizen of the U.S., be at least 35 years old, and have held residency in the U.S. for at least 14 years. Easy enough. There are numerous political parties (collectives of politicians who share similar political views) in America, but by far the two biggest parties in the U.S. are the Democrats and the Republicans. I listed those two parties alphabetically for my own sake of not getting attacked in the comments, so please don’t come for me. Each party then votes internally for which candidate will represent them in the country’s general election. Ah, but we haven’t even reached the complicated bit yet.

Where do statistics come into all of this? The Electoral College. A concept that has been haunting the media all week and consistently proves to be the most anticipated segment of any U.S. Presidential Election. The nation votes in a similar way that we do here - registered voters cast a ballot at a polling station or via a mail-in ballot to vote for their preferred president and vice-president - side note: may this be your friendly reminder to get registered :)

Oh, but their system is a LOT spicier than your average election process. It may feel as if each citizen is electing the president in one big election. They don’t. It’s actually the 50 states that pick the president (and District of Columbia). One of the many bizarre aspects of this system is that states can vote HOWEVER they wish (abiding by their own state laws of course). They can even go against how their own citizens voted. Wild.

So, when voters cast their vote, yes, the presidential nominees are named on the ballot BUT voters are actually casting votes for a group of people called “electors” to represent their state. Each party nominates a group of electors (usually political party insiders), and whichever party wins the statewide contest (usually) gets to send all their electors to vote for their presidential nominee - whether their party won the state by 51% or 100%!

Each state is allocated a certain number of electors, with 538 in total across the United States. The number of electors in each state is proportional to the population of that state + 2 extra. Those extra two votes provide the lesser-populated states with remarkable power. Take Hawaii vs Texas. Based on 2019 statistics, Texas of population 28.996 million has one vote per estimated .755 million of the population, whereas with the 1.42 million in Hawaii, they boast one vote per .355 million people. Hence, the votes per president are only distributed proportionally-ish.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, each elector represents approximately 711,000 individuals, which explains why some states have more electors than others. Once the electors have been elected, the state USUALLY gives all their electoral votes to the elected electors. That’s a tongue-twister. These electors proceed to cast their presidential votes on behalf of the state they were elected in, USUALLY voting for the political party that they represent. Again, we’re talking about the usual cases as I don’t fancy dipping into the exceptions because I can guarantee you that we will be here all day.

The rest is simple - to become the President of the United States of America, you must receive an absolute majority of 270 electoral votes (yes, 269-269 is possible, but we don’t have time for that!). There have been many controversies surrounding The Electoral College over the years but quite frankly, it’s the race to 270. May the odds be ever in your favour.

My name is Saoirse Trought and I am a 3rd year Mathematical Sciences student at University College Cork, Ireland. Besides my obvious interest in all things maths, I happen to be fluent as Gaeilge. I enjoy sailing (although I am extremely accident prone), staycation-ing and attempting to run UCC MathSoc. I'm looking forward to combining some of these interests with statistics and seeing where it takes us!