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What is the Electoral College?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 17, 2024
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During a national presidential election, each state sends representatives, members of the Electoral College to vote on behalf of the state's population. Our Constitution provides for the electors as a way of sharing power between the Federal and State governments in our country's system of federalism. This way, neither the government nor the population at large are completely responsible for electing a president.

Each state, plus the District of Columbia, gets a set number of electors based somewhat on population. The number of electors is just the number of Senators (always two) plus the number of Representatives in the House. This does not track proportionally, from state to state, based on population. The numbers are updated every ten years with results from the National Census. For the decade 2000-2010, there are 538 total electors. A presidential candidate must receive a majority of votes from the Electoral College, or 270 votes, to be declared the winner.

While the Constitution provides for such a system, it is not detailed in the methods of carrying it out. The Office of the Federal Register oversees the process of elector nomination, usually at state party conventions, and organizes their voting. Almost all states use a winner-takes-all system, so that electors are pledged to vote for whichever candidate wins the popular vote of the state. Only Maine and Nebraska use proportional systems that might award some electoral votes to one candidate and some to another. In fact, the electors are not legally bound to vote for the leading candidate, but they are usually loyal to their party. If there is no candidate who receives a majority of Electoral votes, the decision is made in Congress, where each state gets only one vote, cast by a Representative.

For almost as long as the Electoral College existed, there has been a debate over its efficacy. Those who'd like to abolish or renovate the system point out that it is possible to win the presidency without winning the national popular vote, which they feel is illogical. Others believe we no longer need such a carefully-guarded balance between "the masses" and a centralized government. Critics also point out that sparsely populated states, since they are guaranteed at least three electoral votes, have an unfair advantage in the disproportional allocation of electors. To make significant changes to the Electoral College, however, would require a Constitutional Amendment.

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Discussion Comments

By TreeMan — On Sep 15, 2012

@Izzy78 - Some say that people are too smart for a dictatorship to happen nowadays, but with the system that is in place it not only ensures this will not happen, it also makes the presidential candidate have a responsibility to attend to each state's concerns and oversee the nation as a whole and not just make short sighted decisions.

The Electoral College brings out the campaign trail, which allows for the candidate to visit each state and be able to see what the state needs changed. I truly believe that this is the best thing that the Electoral College offers as it allows the future president a chance to interact with American citizens and see the problems that need to be fixed at the lower levels.

By Izzy78 — On Sep 14, 2012

One thing I noticed with the Electoral College is that a lot of the states are "winner take all" with their delegates and it means that there is more of an emphasis on the candidates to promise states something and address their concerns in the election.

I think that without the system created by the Electoral College presidential candidates may just focus on national issues as a whole instead of focusing on some of the concerns of the states that are voting them into office.

If the election were decided on total votes the candidate would merely focus on the nation as a whole in their campaign instead of focusing on each state one by one.

By kentuckycat — On Sep 14, 2012

@jcraig - That is very interesting and it can also be summed up by the powers of government concerning checks and balances.

There are numerous government entities that check each other and ensure that one does not have too much power, like how the courts check the laws.

The Electoral College merely is another one of these checks, but it only comes around when it needs to, which is once every four years.

It is easy to manipulate voters at the time of an election and by having the electoral college it ensures that the presidential candidate does not make a platform based on short term promises, like say ending or leading the nation in a war, and allows for a way out in case the people make an obvious mistake electing their leader.

In a way this is the check that the government has over the people and if the people do not like how it occurred, their check is that they can vote people out of office.

By jcraig — On Sep 13, 2012

People wonder why voters in a presidential election do not get to directly choose the next president and the reason why is simply because the fore fathers wanted to make sure that democracy was protected.

The fear the fore fathers had was that if a war were to occur around the time of an election a candidate running could manipulate the people into voting for him just to deal with the war, and would in essence become a dictator after, and democracy would be gone.

This was one thing that some people feared with Lincoln, that he would become a dictator with the Civil War and how his party controlled a large majority of Congress. However, he chose to protect democracy as well as there being way too things in government, like courts, Congress, and the Electoral College, that would prevent a dictator from emerging in the United States.

By ElizaBennett — On Apr 30, 2012

@Kat919 - I see your point, but I don't think that the nation is ready yet to take the states totally out of the equation. If everything depended on the popular vote, a candidate could win the presidency without ever leaving his living room. The electoral college requires candidates to travel to different states and learn what they want and need.

I wish more states, however, would use a proportional system. I think what Maine does is that you get one electoral vote for every congressional district you win, and the winner of the whole state gets the two "extra" votes, so there is still an advantage to winning the state. The proportional system creates electoral college results that are a closer match to the popular vote.

It might even get candidates to focus attention on more states. Right now, if a candidate can't win a state, he just ignores it. But if he could win *part* of the state, he might find it worth his while to pay attention to it after all.

By Kat919 — On Apr 30, 2012

I had a teacher in high school who predicted that the electoral college process was on its last legs. Usually, you see, the electoral college simply magnifies the result of the popular vote. The winner of the popular vote typically wins the electoral college by an even wider margine.

Bu that doesn't always happen. It is possible to win the electoral college but lose the popular vote, and that has happened several times in our nation's history. When I was in high school in the mid-90s, it had not happened in many, many years, and he predicted that the next time it did, there would be widespread outrage. A constitutional amendment, he predicted, would follow, abolishing the electoral college so that the winner of the popular vote would never lose.

But he was wrong: in the 2000 election, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, and no outrage over the electoral college followed. I think the reason is that people were so distracted over the Florida recount and Supreme Court case, they hardly noticed the popular vote. Now we're stuck with it for a while longer, I guess.

By anon124830 — On Nov 07, 2010

At last I see now in large part why the system has destroyed itself. Too bad it will take all of the rest of us with it.

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