How Many Electoral Votes Is An Absolute Majority? The Number Changes As Years Pass

The presidential election is just two weeks away, which means you’re about to hear a whole lot more about the electoral college than you ever cared to know. In order to become president, a candidate must win an absolute majority in the electoral college — but how many electoral votes is an absolute majority?

This year, it’s 270. There are a total of 538 electoral votes up for grabs (hence the name of Nate Silver’s election forecasting site), and an absolute majority of 538 is 270. An absolute majority, however, is different than a simple majority, also known as a plurality, wherein a candidate wins more votes than anybody else, but does not win over 50 percent of the total votes cast. This is what happened in the 1824 election, which featured four major presidential candidates. Since all of them failed to win an absolute majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives picked the next president instead, as required under the 12th Amendment.

Although 270 votes will be needed to win the 2016 election, that hasn’t always been and won’t always be the case. This is because the number of electoral votes a given state has is equal to the total number of representatives it sends to the Senate and the House, which itself is determined by the state’s population. But state populations change over time, and as they do, so does America’s electoral math.

The admission of new states to the union also changes the electoral calculus. This can be seen by looking at electoral maps from the 19th century, when states were being added left and right. Each new state received its own congressional representation, and that, too, upped the total electoral vote count.

In all likelihood, the 2016 election will end with one of the candidates winning an absolute majority of electoral votes. That candidate will probably be Hillary Clinton, as she’s leading Donald Trump substantially by every available metric — well, almost every metric — and is on track to win a lot more than 270 electoral votes. FiveThirtyEight predicts that Clinton will have around 340 electoral votes by the time voting is done, and other forecasters have arrived at similar numbers.

But who knows? There are plausible electoral maps that have Clinton and Trump tying at 269 electoral votes each, which would kick the question down to the House and undoubtedly, regardless of who was deemed the winner, result in a national uproar. But let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, which will hopefully be never.