May 9, 2019

By Jillian Seigel, RepresentUs

Every four years American citizens 18 years and older are eligible to cast their vote for the president of the United States. Seems simple - but many voters don't realize they aren't directly voting for the president. Why? Because we use a system called the Electoral College to elect the president and vice president.

What is the Electoral College?

Well first thing's first: the Electoral College isn't a place. The Electoral College was created by delegates in 1787 as a compromise between electing the president by a vote in Congress, or electing through a popular vote by qualified citizens.

The Founders set up the Electoral College for a few reasons:1

  • To balance the interests of northern and southern states
  • To put a buffer between the people and electing the president; a chosen group of people would be able to object to the people’s vote
  • They believed that not all voters were informed enough to choose a leader

The Electoral College is a system where citizens indirectly elect the president and vice president through a body of 538 electors.

What are electors?

Electors are people chosen by their state parties prior to the general election who cast their vote for president on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. On Election Day, voters cast their vote for president and the winner of the popular vote in each state is awarded their party’s slate of electors.

Electors almost always cast their vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state, which explains why we have election results available on Election Day. However, the Constitution does not require them to do so. There have been a few instances where electors defected from their pledged vote, but it has not changed the outcome of an election.

How many electoral votes are there and how many are needed to win?

The number of electors for each state is equal to the number of U.S. Senators and Representatives in the state’s delegation. To win the presidency, a candidate must receive a minimum of 270 electoral votes.

A breakdown of the electoral college using New York and South Dakota as examples based off of population

What does “winner takes all” mean with electoral votes?

“Winner takes all” is implemented in all but two states: Nebraska and Maine. “Winner takes all” means all Electoral College votes will go to one candidate based on the state’s popular vote.

For example: Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes. Regardless of how much one candidate wins the popular margin, all 20 electoral votes will go to that one candidate.

In Nebraska and Maine, Electoral College votes are assigned in part by the presidential results in each of their congressional districts.

For example: Nebraska has 5 electoral votes. Instead of “winner takes all,” two electoral votes will be allocated to the winner of the state’s popular vote and then one electoral vote to the winner of the popular vote in each Congressional district.

What happens if a candidate doesn't receive 270 votes?

If no candidate receives 270 Electoral College votes, the president is then selected by the House of Representatives. Each state gets a single vote. 

What is the Popular Vote?

When we receive the results from any presidential election, we are give two different results: the Electoral College and the popular vote. The popular vote is simply which candidate has received the most total votes.

Are we getting rid of the Electoral College?

The short answer is: no, not right now. However, many states are taking measures towards electing the president by a popular vote.

The National Popular Vote is a nonprofit working to implement a national popular vote for president, by creating an agreement among the states to elect by national popular vote. The compact will go into effect when enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes (270).

An updated list of all the states that have passed a state-wide bill to enact the national popular vote can be found here

When in effect, states that are in the compact will guarantee their electoral votes go to the winner of the national popular vote, guaranteeing the president of the United States will be elected by popular vote.

Why do some people want to abolish the Electoral College?

Candidates focus too much on Swing States

In the current system, there are states both Republicans and Democrats are guaranteed to win and so presidential candidates can ignore those states and focus instead on just a few  “battleground” or “swing” states. Battleground states are those that are a toss-up to either candidate. Often with many electoral votes at stake, these are where candidates spend most of their time and resources competing for votes. These states have a lot of power and can decide the outcome of a presidential election.

Small states get too much power

Critics of the Electoral College claim it gives outsized power to small states because they are guaranteed three electoral votes despite lower population size.

Winning the popular vote doesn’t guarantee the presidency

Two of our last three presidents won the presidency without winning the national popular vote.

What states have an advantage with the Electoral College? And which states are at a disadvantage?

The makeup of the United States has changed a lot since the implementation of the Electoral College. Because of the distribution of electoral votes, some believe the Electoral College actually gives an advantage to some states.

Tara Golshan 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.”

Meanwhile, people in states that have a large population but are not battleground states lose the value of their own vote because electoral votes are already decided and there is less incentive for candidates to spend time campaigning in that state. This perception of a loss of the value of their vote can decrease voter turnout.

Discussions around the Electoral College and a popular vote have promising arguments on each side. For now, the Electoral College is here to stay but the power of the states is on the rise.

Not all the founding fathers held these same opinions. Ultimately, the concept of electors choosing the president was a compromise that all states could agree to, with the state legislatures deciding how those electors would be chosen because the state legislatures were the closest body to the people. 

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.