What is the Electoral College?
Most people in the United States have gone their entire lives without actually understanding the true process of electing the President. Most people assume the presidential candidate with the most votes wins the election. However, what these people don’t understand is that the winning candidate did not necessarily have the most popular votes, rather they had the most electoral votes. The popular vote is the total number or percentage of votes cast for a candidate by the people. The electoral votes are the output of a complex system of representation, intended to provide proportionate influence in the election to states with smaller populations. Sounds simple, right? How can a presidential candidate win the greatest number of votes from the people, yet still lose the election?
The answer to this question is the electoral college process. The electoral college consists of a body of 538 electors and ultimately acts as “a compromise between the election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens.” (1) In other words, the electoral college puts a step (the electors) in between the popular vote and the actual election, causing the presidential election to be an indirect vote by the people. In order for the President to be elected, she or he must win 270 of the 528 total electoral votes.
Why was the electoral college formed?
The electoral college was formed in 1787 when the original 13 states sent delegates to meet, resulting in the creation of the new Constitution. The delegates wanted to promote a true democracy in which each eligible citizen casts their vote and the candidate with the greatest number of votes would win the election. However, the founders foresaw many challenges and founded the electoral college for two main reasons:
- Lack of representation: Smaller states had a disproportionate lack of representation because candidates knew these particular states had less influence on the outcome of the election. By creating the electoral college, the founders sought to balance the interests of smaller and larger populated states.
- Buffer: The founders did not believe that the majority of citizens were informed enough to choose their own president and vice president, so they insisted that the electoral college creates a buffer between the popular vote which compensates for any potential errors.
And so, the convention of delegates compromised to create a hybrid system.
What are electors?
Who are the electors?
The electors that a state uses to represent their party are people who have shown support and pledge that they will vote in line with the party that nominated them. However, on rare occasions, some electors (known as faithless electors) secretly disobey their pledge and vote for the opposite party line. This is not illegal since the constitution does not require electors to follow their party line.
How many electors can each state have?
The number of electors a state is allowed to represent their population is equivalent to their number of representatives and senators in the state’s delegation. (2)
How does the electoral college give smaller states a larger voice?
The number of electors representing a state is contingent on the population of a state and two additional senators. This is because the number of representatives states are delegated is determined by population size. However, every state always has two senators, no matter their population. The founders deemed this as a solution to the concern of representation: by adding two senators to the equation that determines the number of electors, the smaller states gained a larger voice. In other words, the two additional senators provide an advantage for smaller states to gain representation. Tara Golshen writes, “For one, there’s the way the Electoral College disproportionately props up smaller states by guaranteeing every state three electors. In other words, 4 percent of the United States’ population in the country’s smallest states gets 8 percent of the Electoral College.” (3) (2)
How does the electoral college process work?
The all-in system is the most popular form of the electoral college, with 48 of 50 states using this as their form of election (all but Maine and Nebraska). This means that if a state has 10 electors, then all 10 electors would be allocated to the party line that won the popular vote.
Congressional District System
The congressional district system, also commonly known as proportional representation, is only used by Nebraska and Maine and is very similar to the all-in system with only a few differences. This system divides the electoral votes by Congressional districts and popular vote. For example, if Maine has four electoral votes, two would go to the popular vote, and the other two would be allocated to each congressional district. This allows Maine and Nebraska to provide electors from both parties to the general election.
What is the debate surrounding the electoral college?
Increasingly, people are questioning the relevance and necessity of the electoral college process. What does the electoral college mean to the people as voters? This question presents the ongoing debate surrounding the abolition of the electoral college. Those in favor of abolition present three main arguments:
- Popular vote should determine the outcome of elections
Critics often believe that the electoral college is non-democratic and an indirect election poses many flaws. Multiple elections have been won purely by electoral votes, even when the popular vote didn’t align. For example, the 2000 presidential election when Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush won the electoral votes. Similarly, in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton amassed a higher percentage of the popular vote; however, Donald Trump won the majority of electoral college votes.
- Smaller states have too much power
Many who oppose the electoral college feel as though population size should actually represent the amount of voice a state has in government.
- Does not actually solve for the lack of representation for smaller states
Critics on the other end oppose the electoral college because they believe the small number of electoral votes allocated to the smaller populated states aren’t enough to convince candidates to spend notable time campaigning in these areas. “Two-thirds (273 of 399) of the general-election campaign events in the 2016 presidential race were in just 6 states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan).” (4)
The electoral college process has been in effect for hundreds of years. Instead of thinking that you are casting your ballot to elect the president directly, rather know that you are voting for your states’ electors. Whether you support or oppose the electoral college, it is important that you understand how your vote is counted.
To learn more about the electoral college from varying opinions, visit these links: