No other country has an arrangement quite like the US electoral college. That makes it difficult for non-Americans (and, truthfully, many Americans) to understand. It’s why US political pundits are always talking about Ohio and Florida, and what the iconic red-blue election night map really means.
But what if other countries used the electoral college? To help you understand how it works, we’ll create an electoral college for three countries with parliamentary democracies: Canada, India, and the UK.
In these countries, the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament normally becomes the prime minister. This person is typically chosen by members of their party, not the public. Whereas in the US, Americans choose their president separately from their members of congress.
How does the electoral college work?
Technically, only 538 people elect the US president. This group of electors is known as the electoral college. When Americans vote for the president, what they’re really doing is choosing which candidate they want their state’s electors to support. The number of electors for each state is equal to the representatives and senators allocated to that state. Since each state has two senators, and a number of representatives based on the state’s population, no state has fewer than three electors. Before the end of the year, these 538 people head to their state capital to cast their pre-determined votes.
Simply, this means each state gets a certain number of votes for the president that correspond loosely to its population. With 55, California has the most, followed by Texas with 38. Florida and New York both have 29. With a few exceptions, it’s a winner-takes-all race. If candidate A gets 49% of a state’s popular vote, and candidate B gets 51%; all votes for that state go to candidate B.
In order to win the presidency, a candidate needs at least 270 of the 538 electoral college votes.
A Canadian electoral college
A Canadian electoral college would consist of 443 electors, based on the number of members of parliament and senators allocated to each province and territory. MP distribution is based primarily on population, and only the MPs are elected. To mimic the US system we’ve assigned each province and territory electoral college votes base on the number of federal legislators each has.
Here’s how the 2019 election for Canadian prime minister would have turned out, if the popular vote for MPs was apportioned to the leader of the candidate’s party.
Canada does not have a two-party system like the US. Since the electoral college is winner-takes-all at a provincial level, smaller parties would have had no chance of winning votes in the electoral college, creating a landslide, outright victory for Justin Trudeau.
The UK’s electoral college
An electoral college in the UK would consist of 650 electors. By dividing England into its nine government-office regions, and including Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each as its own region, we can assemble jurisdictions for an electoral college. The number of MPs found in each region will translate into its number of electors. For the UK we don’t include members of the House of Lords, as they’re not appointed by region.
With an electoral college, the Scottish National Party and Labour would have fared better, but Boris Johnson would have still been elected prime minister despite his Conservative Party losing votes under this system.
An Indian electoral college
An electoral college in India would be the largest of our imaginary systems, consisting of 776 electors.
India’s parliament is divided into two houses: the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. Members of the Lok Sabha are elected by the public, whereas members of Rajya Sabha are elected by state legislatures or appointed by the president of India, the country’s ceremonial head of state. Every state and union territory in India has at least one MP in the Lok Sabha, but not all are represented in the Rajya Sabha. Combining the MPs for both houses allotted to each state gets us the number of electors for our electoral college.
Giving electoral college votes to the leader of the party with the most votes in each region creates a 2019 Indian election landslide for Narendra Modi, increasing the prime minister’s vote total by 67%.