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Texas, the Electoral College, and You

A primer on how the Electoral College works, what to expect on Election Day, and what it will (and won't) mean if Texas goes blue.

By Dianna Wray November 2, 2020

If you’d told us even a month ago that we’d be seeing Texas, perceived as the most Republican of the red states, be deemed up for grabs in the 2020 presidential race, we’d have been polite about our skepticism. And if you’d informed us that the many of the polls during the last few days before the election would have President Donald Trump ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden by just a point in the Lone Star State, well, we’d have assured you that we were all more likely to see Trump and Biden partner up to skate an ice-dancing tango.

However, here we are. The two Oval Office contenders have shown no signs of wanting to strap on pairs of skates and perform a chilly choreographed dance of love on ice, and Texas, for the first time in decades, is in play. It’s actually not inconceivable that on Tuesday night, voters could hand the state's 38 electoral college votes to Biden.

But will that decide the 2020 presidential race once and for all? Well, the odds are very against that happening. To understand why, here’s a quick refresher on what is actually about to go down including a look at the electoral college, how it works in general, how it works in Texas, and thus what a Texas win for either the Republicans or the Democrats will actually indicate in the battle to win the White House.

So … what is the electoral college again, exactly?

The Electoral College is a system thought up by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in Article II, Section One of the U.S. Constitution that awards states a number of electors based on the number of representatives each state sends to Congress. On Tuesday—and in all the time leading up to this particular early-voting-centric election—citizens are actually voting to select the 538 electors who will then cast their ballots for president. 

It’s a controversial system that some support and others have been urging to eliminate for years now, since it allows a candidate to lose the national popular vote but still, because of the ways the various state electoral college votes are weighted, win the presidency. This system also ends up giving smaller states and their voters (Iowa, we are so not looking at you right now) an incredible amount of sway at the expense of larger states with bigger populations.

Texas has the second-most electoral college votes in the country, but despite that we traditionally don’t see a ton of campaigning down here. Why? Mainly because we’ve gone GOP (with a few exceptions) reliably since Jimmy Carter scored our votes back in 1976. Plus, we have a winner-take-all system, so whoever wins the most votes statewide wins those electors. Because of this, it would take massive voter registration increases and huge voter turnout to create the kind of seismic political shift that puts Texas in play, let alone actually flips the state to blue. You know, kind of like what we've been seeing now ... but we digress. Even if such things were to occur though, it’s very difficult to pull off that kind of a swing in a state our size (this might just possibly be the reason the Texas GOP has been trying to get more than 127,000 drive-thru votes in Harris County thrown out in the lead-up to Election Day, but again we digress.)   

So how does the Electoral College actually work here?

In Texas, the electors for each party are chosen at that party’s annual convention earlier in the year. Texas is one of 33 states that awards the candidate who gets the most popular votes all 38 of its Electoral College voters. Once the winner is called, the winning party’s chosen Texas electors limber up and get ready to head to Austin on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December (that will be December 14 this year.)

So if Texas does actually go blue on election night, what does that mean? Or, what about if it goes red, as usual?

If Texas goes blue—and the polls are so close that we simply won't know it either way until we know—it will do a number on the Electoral College math and make it nearly (but not virtually) impossible for Trump to find a path to victory.

Why? Because it takes 270 Electoral College votes to win. Although Texas would not secure the presidency for Biden, it would indicate that a landslide victory was about to unfold—again, because it’s Texas, after all.

But if Trump takes the state’s electoral votes, as he did back in 2016 (albeit by just nine percentage points, the smallest margin seen in the state since 1996), and particularly if North Carolina and Florida both go red again in 2020, there’s still a chance for the president to eke out a win. That will also mean that we’d all best settle in because it will be a long night, and it most likely won’t be clear who won for weeks.  

Is it over once the winner's electors have been chosen?

Not necessarily, so if you're exhausted already by all things election, well, don't start congratulating yourself on having made it through Democracy-in-Action 2020 just yet. Intriguingly, electors are not bound to their voting pledges in Texas, as some might remember from 2016 when two Republican Texas electors opted to break their pledges and not vote for Trump. After 2016 there was a push in Texas to bind the electors but it never happened. The U.S. Supreme Court even reviewed the question of elector requirements earlier this year and concluded it was up to the states to bind or not bind those votes, an option that Texas has yet to opt in on. Our electors aren’t even fined if they choose not to support the winning candidate.

Anyway, from there, the Electoral College votes are sent to Washington D.C. where the newly elected U.S. Congress will oversee those votes being formally counted and declare a winner—on January 6.

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