With the general election less than three months away, you're probably hearing a lot about the various "paths to victory" for front-runners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
In most cases, reporters and analysts are talking about what's going on in so-called "battleground states," like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Winning at least a few of them is considered essential for coming out on top on Election Day.
Why? Because as Al Gore can attest, the United States picks its president based not on the popular vote, but on who secures the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win. But what is the Electoral College?
In an nutshell, here's how it works: The National Archives And Records Administration helpfully explains that each state is granted a certain number of electors — these are the people who will technically select the president based on how each state votes. How many electors each state has is connected to how many members of Congress represent it. That includes the two U.S. senators and the delegation to the House of Representatives, which is based on population (the District of Columbia, by the way, gets three electors).
Most — but not all — states are winner-take-all, meaning all the electors will go to the candidate who wins the popular vote on November 8. The actual electoral vote happens a month later and is formally counted by Congress in January.
The Electoral College system isn't without controversy, however. As we saw in the 2000 presidential election, a candidate can win the popular vote, but not the presidency. It also means that candidates focus their campaigns on these swing states, sometimes leaving voters in non-competitive states feeling left out.
A number of states have signed onto an ongoing campaign to stop relying on the Electoral College and have Americans pick our president by popular vote. Ten states, as well as Washington, D.C., have joined the National Popular Vote Compact, pledging to give all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. But the compact only takes effect if it gains support in enough states to hit that 270 electoral vote threshold.
Still not clear? TED-Ed helpfully breaks down the process, which is outlined in the U.S. Constitution, in this easy-to-follow video from the last election cycle:
So here's how those "battleground states" earned their name: they're ones that aren't (historically) solidly Republican or Democrat and are expected to be competitive this election cycle.
It means that those states — and, as a consequence, the electors hitched to the outcome — could end up tipping the entire election by sending dozens of electoral college votes to one camp. This year, at least 11 states are considered competitive, accounting for more than half the electoral votes needed to win. Politico has a handy feature explaining which states are at play — and what's at stake.