How is it determined who wins a state? Is it strictly based on the popular vote within that state, or is it more complex, like each state has its own electoral college type system with certain geographic subregions winning a set number of votes if the candidate wins in that subregion?

I always assumed it was just based on total popular vote within the state, but during an election when they zoom in on a state they always show the individual counties colored red or blue. Do these county-level results actually mean anything, or are they just interesting to look at?

And do all states work the same basic way?

  • 3
    Neither answer explicitly says this, but each state can determine for itself what rules to follow. That's why two states are different than the others.
    – Bobson
    Jul 31, 2016 at 4:52
  • 1
    Some states have enacted legislation allocating their electors according to the national vote, to go into effect when a percentage of states agree to join in. Aug 2, 2016 at 4:37

3 Answers 3


It depends if you're talking about Maine and Nebraska, or every other state.

In most states, the county-level maps are just so people can see what areas of the state supported which candidate. The entire slate of electors goes to whoever has the most votes in the state, even if every single one of those votes was cast in a single city. County-level results are like when newscasters report support for candidates by demographic (based on exit polls): it gives viewers more information about who's voting for which candidate, but as far as the results go it doesn't matter.

In Maine and Nebraska, electoral votes aren't winner-take-all. They give one electoral vote per congressional district a candidate wins (including two EVs for whoever has the most statewide votes, because there are two senators). County results don't matter there either, but congressional district results do.


In 48 of 50 states, it is a simple "winner take all" system. The candidate with the largest number of votes in their state receive all the electors from that state.

Nebraska and Maine are the weird ones. They currently use the Maine-Nebraska system, in which electors are determined regionally. Nebraska (for example) is split into 3 regions, and each region's vote is totaled separately. So it's possible for 2 electors to be Republicans while 1 is a Democrat.

News casters will often show maps by county. Why? Probably a couple reasons:

  1. Results are actually tallied at the county level and then sent to the state government. This is also why you often hear that the newscaster saying "X wins [the state] with Y counties reporting" - not all counties have reported their votes yet.
  2. Tactically, parties are organized (and often operate) at the county level. If a county votes contrary to what a party expects, it can indicate a serious problem for that party. People who are really active in their state or local politics may also want this level of detail.

TL;DR: The electoral votes of each state are allocated in whatever way the state's legislature says they get allocated. Mostly.

U.S. Const. II.1.2:

Each State[1] shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

The number of electoral votes any given state gets is constrained, and there are restrictions on who the electors who officially cast the electoral votes can be, but how the electoral votes are allocated is up to the state legislatures. A state could pass a law to have the winner of its electoral votes be decided by drawing names from a hat, or award them to the oldest living Grammy winner not constitutionally barred from the presidency, and it would probably pass constitutional muster (disclaimer: IANALAENALSICLNDIPOOTVTMTSTROAOEMIYROAISALAATGBFYYHNOTBBY2).

How this works in practice

Currently, all 50 states1 use an indirect-popular-vote system, where the results of the state (or district)'s popular vote determines which party's electors get picked (which usually translates into which candidate the state's electoral votes go to - although not always! See below):

  • 48 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, use a winner-take-all system, where all of the state (or district)'s electoral votes are allocated to the candidate who got the most votes in that state.
  • In the remaining two states (Maine and Nebraska), the popular vote totals for each of the state's congressional districts are tallied up separately; each congressional district gets one electoral vote, which goes to the candidate who got the most votes in that congressional district, while the remaining two electoral votes go to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

There are a couple of wrinkles, however!

Firstly, a state does not have to use one of the two methods above (or even take the popular vote into account at all). Some different methods were used in the past, and others have been proposed (although not adopted):

  • Early in U.S. history, the electoral votes for most states were chosen not by popular vote, but, rather, by a vote in the state legislature - no popular vote was held at all. Most of the states stopped using this method in the first quarter of the 19th century, but South Carolina's legislature continued to choose their state's electoral votes all the way up until the Civil War. (This method was also used a few times after that, when exceptional circumstances kept a popular vote from being held; the last was in 1876, when Colorado - admitted as a state just three months prior to the election - had neither the time nor the funds to arrange for a statewide popular vote.)
  • Very early on, a few states used a two-round hybrid system, with the popular vote narrowing down the choices and the legislature making the final selection; this was last used, by Tennessee, in 1800.
  • Up through at least 1832, some states divided themselves into electoral districts, each getting one electoral vote, which was given to the winner of that district's popular vote. (This differs from the Maine-Nebraska method in that the electoral districts would be two greater in number than the state's congressional districts, and their boundaries did not have to coincide with those of the latter.)
  • In 2013, Virginia contemplated switching to a scheme similar to the Maine-Nebraska method; the difference would have been that the two statewide electoral votes would have gone to whoever won the most congressional districts within the state, rather than to whoever won the most popular votes in the state.
  • Proportional-representation systems (in which the electoral votes would be divided between the candidates based on the proportion of the statewide popular vote won by each candidate) have been proposed, but not implemented.
  • Finally, fifteen states (plus the District of Columbia) have adopted the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, under which all the electoral votes of all participating states would be awarded to the winner of the nationwide popular vote. It is not yet in effect, as that would require that it be ratified by enough states to add up to at least 270 electoral votes (which has not yet happened), and its constitutionality is unknown.

Secondly, who the electors actually vote for is not necessarily decided, even once they've been chosen by the state legislatures:

  • In 1944, 1956, 1960, and 1964, a slate of unpledged electors was an option on the ballot in a few Southern states; these electors would then cast their electoral votes for candidates of their own choosing. In 1960, unpledged electors actually won fourteen electoral votes in Mississippi and Alabama (they did not change the outcome of the election, however).
  • More common has been the phenomenon of faithless electors, who are pledged by their state legislatures to cast their electoral votes for specific presidential and vice-presidential candidates, but cast one (or both) of their votes for someone else. Usually, there is only one faithless elector in a given election (or, more often, none at all), but the 2016 election saw seven, and the all-time record was in 1872, when one presidential candidate would have gotten 66 electoral votes had he not died prior to the Electoral College meeting; three electors voted for the dead guy anyway,6 while the other 63 cast their votes for a bunch of other people. As with the unpledged electors, faithless electors have never changed the outcome of an election.

It's complicated.

1: Plus, since the 1961 ratification of the 23rd Amendment, the District of Columbia, which gets as many electoral votes as the state with the fewest electoral votes gets. (In practice, this has always added up to three.)

2: I am not a lawyer,3 and especially not a lawyer specialising in constitutional law, nor do I play one on TV, the movies, the stage, the radio, or any other entertainment medium; if you rely on anything I say as legal advice, and things go badly for you, you have no one to blame but yourself.

3: I have an uncle who's a lawyer, though.4

4: Though still not one specialising in constitutional law.5

5: I think.

6: Since a corpse can't be president,7 these three electoral votes were considered invalid.

7: This could change if intelligent undead were to become a thing.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .