Two of the past three U.S. presidents—Donald Trump and George W. Bush—were elected to their position without winning the popular vote. How does this happen? It has to do with the Electoral College.
Each state has a number of electors equal to its total number of senators and representatives. For example, Illinois has 18 representatives and 2 senators, so it has 20 electors. A candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes—a majority of the total of 538—to become president.
In most states, the candidate who wins the popular vote gets all of that state’s electoral votes. (Maine and Nebraska have a different system.) That means states that have a lot of electors—like California, Texas, and New York—play a big role in the outcome of an election.
But sometimes, a candidate can win the popular vote of a big state—and take that state’s large number of electoral votes—by a very small margin. That’s where the discrepancies between the popular and electoral votes start to build up.
To better understand how the Electoral College works, check out our interactive Electoral College map here.