What is is the electoral college? With a new election year coming up, it’s a good idea to take a look at our system of government, and get a sense of what your vote really means.
If you google the electoral college definition, you’ll see, “(in the US) a body of people representing the states of the US, who formally cast votes for the election of the president and vice president. A body of electors chosen or appointed by a larger group.”
In short, the electoral college is the voting body that decides (via vote) who the next president will be.
Basically this means that when a citizen of the United States places their vote, they are not actually giving one vote to be counted for that candidate, per se. What is actually happening is they are voting for which party’s electors will vote on the state’s behalf for the office of president.
The electoral college is made up of all of the states’ electors, who are voting on behalf of each state’s citizens.
After the citizens vote and the electors are chosen, the electoral college votes to elect the president. The electors generally vote as they pledged to, but are not required to do so.
US Electoral College System
Electoral College’s 538 electors are divided like this:
- Washington DC gets 3 electors
- Each state gets 1 elector for each of its members of the house of representatives.
- Each state also gets 2 electors, 1 for each senator.
This is supposed to be designed so that the electors would be some what proportional to the people in the states. i.e. states with more people would get more electors.
California has the most electors (55) and Washington DC has the least, unless you count US territories like Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, who have no electoral votes and get no say on who the president is.
How the Electoral College Works
In each state, each party selects their slate of potential electors to vote for the president.
- A slate of potential electors is the list of people that were nominated within a party to vote on that party’s behalf.
For example, Texas gets 38 electoral votes. So, in Texas, the Democratic party would select 38 democrats that could potentially vote on behalf of the democratic party. Those 38 potential voters, would then be Texas’ Democratic slate of potential electors.
The republican party would then do the same thing, and put together 38 republicans to potentially vote on their behalf.
When the citizens vote to elect a candidate, they are actually electing that candidate’s party’s slate of electors.
When all of the votes for a state are counted, in all but Nebraska and Maine, the party that won the popular vote gets all of the electors for their party from that state.
Going back to our example of Texas, if 49% of citizens in Texas vote republican, and 51% vote democrat, then all 38 Democratic electors go to the electoral college. It does not matter how close the race was, the winner gets all of the electoral votes regardless.
This is what it means to ‘win a state‘. That is a phrase that is commonly used during and nearing an election, on TV and in discussions.
The Nebraska and Maine System
Nebraska and Maine have a different system than the other states. Like the other states, the two parties each prepare a slate of potential candidates for the electoral college.
Unlike the other states, however, they do not have a winner-take-all system. They have a system called “proportional distribution“, which divides their electoral votes evenly among the congressional districts.
This is how the votes are divided:
- 2 electors for the party that won the popular vote
- 1 vote to whichever party that won each congressional district
Nebraska has 5 electoral votes. Let’s say the majority of the citizens voted republican. The republican party, gets an automatic 2 electors. The other three votes, are divided among Nebraska’s 3 congressional districts.
Say the majority of district one voted democrat, but the majority of district two and three voted republican.
That would mean that 4 republican electors (2 for the districts, and 2 for the popular vote) and 1 democrat elector would vote on behalf of Nebraska.
Benefits of this system:
- Although the winner of a particular congressional district may be the same as the winner of the popular vote, this system allows for the possibility that it could be the other party.
- These are the only two states that could potentially send electors from both parties.
- This system allows for the voices of the citizens to be more accurately represented. If a particular district voted republican, while the majority of the state voted democrat, that district will have their voice heard.
If all of the states switched to this design, then a Republican’s voice could be heard in a blue state and a Democrat’s voice could be heard in a red state.
Popular Vote Vs Electoral Vote
Popular Vote: The total number or votes from the citizens.
Electoral College Vote: The vote that decides who will be the next president of the United States of America.
Winning the Popular Vote: The winner of the popular vote is the candidate that the most citizens voted for.
Winning the Presidency: The next president of the United States is the candidate that wins the most electoral college votes.
Examples of times this might have been a problem:
In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote, receiving 50,999,987 total votes from citizens. George Bush received 50,456,002 votes from citizens. However, George Bush got 271 electoral votes and Al Gore only got 266.
In 2016 Hillary Clinton got 65,853,514 vote from citizens, while Donald Trump got 62,984,828. That means nearly 3,000,000 fewer citizens voted for Donald Trump than voted for Hillary Clinton. However, Donald Trump got 304 electoral votes, to Hillary Clinton’s 227.
How does one qualify to be an elector?
Specifically, the constitution says, “…no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.“
Beyond that there is not more limitation. You’d think that the constitution would require the electors to be citizens of the United States, however, I’ve read through this section entirely (You can too, click here), there is no requirement for the electors to be citizens.
How are the electors chosen?
Each party of each state determines their own process for choosing a slate of electors.
Sometimes they may be an active person in the party, or an unpaid member of the campaign.
Since not all electors are required by law to vote how they pledged to, it is in the party’s best interest to choose electors they can be confident will vote for their candidate.
Where did the Electoral College Come From?
The electoral college was written into the constitution when they were deciding how the country would be run.
During this time the average education level between classes of citizens was widely varied. The fastest way to travel was horseback, and there was a high likelihood of dying on the trip before ever reaching Washington.
The founding fathers wrote provisions into the constitution to prevent the congress from choosing the president, so that the people would always have a voice.
The constitution requires that each state send electors equaling the number of senators and house representatives from each state, to vote for the president on behalf of that state.
This group of electors is the Electoral College. Since then, we’ve modified it so that Washington get 3 votes, however we’ve made no such adjustments for any US territories.
The system of the electoral college and the requirements to be an elector have hardly changed since its inception.
Electoral College Pros and Cons
Problems with the Electoral College
“Electors are not legally bound to vote for the candidate that they have pledged to back in 24 states, but it would be highly unorthodox for an elector to go against the popular vote.” 
This statement alone speaks to the problems that may occur with the system of the electoral college.
The article Emperically Evaluating The Electoral College argues, “the electoral vote will differ from the popular vote only when the average votes shares are very close to a half.” (Katz, Gelman, and King).
Their article, written in 2002, studies many cases throughout history where someone won the electoral vote that lost the popular vote by a small margin, like in 2000.
However, now we’ve seen (in 2016) that isn’t always the case. Losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million is not “very close to half.”
Benefits of the Electoral College
The largest benefit of the electoral college there has ever been, is the role it played in ending slavery. Abraham Lincoln lost the popular vote by 61%, and became the president because he won the electoral college. Abraham Lincoln took an important stance at a difficult time in the Nation’s history, and without the electoral college, he never would have had the power to make the change he did.
The article In Defense of the Electoral College makes a very important point, “For all the reverence paid to the popular vote in presidential elections, the Constitution says not a word about holding a popular vote for presidents.” (Guelzo)
In this article, Guelzo makes a fair point that we are at the core a democratic republic. He points out that from the beginning the constitution required each state to produce electors to vote on behalf of their state, and at no point throughout history has our constitution ever mentioned the popular vote.
Furthermore, some see this system as a safeguard against uninformed or bias voters.
Relying on the popular vote would also negate any reason for campaigning to more rural areas, as winning larger regions would be sufficient to secure the election. The electoral college is intended to represent the voice of each state.
Does your vote matter?
Your vote is not choosing the president, but that does not mean it isn’t important. If a large number of people with similar voting interests choose not to vote, then they are essentially ensuring the other party’s electors will go to congress.
Furthermore, civilizations are designed and changed by people. Our system is obviously a dinosaur created for a different time. That is a little disputed fact. We are the people. It is our job to learn how to create change if we do not like the current system. Showing up to vote for our party’s electors is the least we can do tip thing in the right direction.
Also, we can pay attention to politicians interested in changing the system to give the people more say. There are many way a citizen can make their vote count by making an informed decision, however many people just choose not to show up and hand the election to their opponent’s party.
Personal Thoughts About the Electoral College
Firstly, it is important to remember that our voting system was designed in a time when it took months to travel from state to state, the votes from each state were recorded on a piece of sealed paper, which was then taken to Washington via horse and carriage to be counted.
In that time the concept of a popular vote being able to be counted accurately was a bit ludicrous. Thus, a system that included a count of the popular vote would have seemed bizarre to the creators of our system.
Since the constitution has never included anything about the popular vote, getting rid of the electoral college and replacing it with the popular vote would be changing the very core of our system of government.
Yet, there is no denying, after the outcome of the 2016 election, that the voice of the electoral college does not always represent the will of the people.
The constitution has been changed before and can be changed again, but a change like that could only be brought about with a well-organized effort to implement a superior system.
If you liked this page, you may enjoy:
- Alexander Hamilton played a major role in establishing our governmental system.
- Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel!
- Our Revolutionary War Timeline links to many of the Revolutionary War battles.
- Our spies page is interesting because of the role women played in espionage during the war.