The Electoral College - How Does it Work?

Updated: Mar 7

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Overview

  3. The Negatives

  4. The Positives

  5. A Deep Dive

  6. A Deep Dive - The Slate of Electors

  7. A Deep Dive - National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

  8. A Deep Dive - Swing States

  9. Sources


America is notorious for having an incredibly confusing system of voting, especially when it comes to national elections. A study published by NBC News found that nearly 43% of Americans don't even know what the electoral college is, let alone how it works. So what is the electoral college, and why does it still exist today?

An Overview

Article two, section one of the U.S. Constitution establishes the electoral college. As outlined in this section, every state receives a certain number of electors, which is determined by adding the number of senators and the number of representatives a state has. For example, New Jersey has two senators and twelve representatives, which gives it a total of fourteen votes in the electoral college. When you cast your vote, you aren't actually voting for who becomes president. Instead, you're deciding whom your state chooses to be president. Whichever candidate receives the majority of the votes in your state gets all of your state's electoral college votes. This is called the "winner-takes-all" method of electoral college voting, and forty-eight states (all besides Maine and Nebraska) follow this method of voting. In Maine and Nebraska, the electoral college employs a "congressional district" method of voting. Under this method, the winner of the entire state receives two of the state's electoral college votes. Then, the remainder of the electoral college votes is given to the candidates based on who won each congressional district. Some consider this method to be fairer since it allows for candidates to receive electoral college votes in the way the citizens actually voted.

The Negatives

Since every state will always have at least one representative and two senators, every state has at least three electors in the electoral college. This is controversial because it means the vote of someone in a state with a low population (like Wyoming) has a significantly higher impact on the overall vote in their state. Every 142,000 people in Wyoming account for an electoral college vote, whereas every 510,000 people in Florida make up a single vote. This uneven division of voting power is sometimes considered unfair due to the demographics of states with higher voting power per person. In addition, the "winner-takes-all" method of voting can occasionally lead to a president getting elected despite receiving fewer votes than their opponent. This has happened five times in American history, including with John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and most recently, Donald Trump.

The Positives

While the electoral college has some rather unpleasant consequences, it also has some positive ones. For example, the uneven distribution of voting power keeps small states relevant in national politics. Since presidents have to focus on swing states during their campaign, states that usually wouldn't get much attention from politicians have a chance to push their unique agendas. The electoral college also ensures that there is a single, indisputable result of the election. While it's possible to refute election results on a state-by-state basis, the electoral college ensures that when everything is said and done, a clear winner emerges.

A Deep Dive

This section of the article will take a deeper look at some aspects of the electoral college, as well as some commonly debated points. For more articles about American politics, view the "U.S. Politics" category of our news page.

The Slate of Electors

The people who physically cast the electoral college votes on behalf of the states are called the "Slate of Electors." Each of the two main political parties selects a group of people to cast votes for their state. These electors can be nearly anyone, as long as they aren't senators, representatives, or state politicians. After each party selects their electors, the citizens cast their votes. Once the votes are tallied and certified by the Secretary of State, a winner is declared for the state. If the winner is a Republican candidate, then the Republican-selected slate of electors is sent to vote on behalf of the state. If the winner is a Democratic candidate, then the Democrat-selected slate of electors casts the state's votes.

National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Since two-thirds of all U.S. states have to approve amendments to the constitution, it's highly unlikely that the electoral college will be removed from the constitution in the foreseeable future. As a result, a group of states has taken the initiative to circumvent the electoral college with a piece of legislation called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This legislation goes into effect when enough states pass it to make a deciding impact on the election, and there are currently fifteen states (and D.C.) that have passed it. This piece of legislation essentially ensures that whoever wins the popular vote overall will win the election. It does this by requiring states to vote for whoever won the popular vote on the national level, not the state level.

Swing States

Swing states are a collection of states where the expected winner of the election is ambiguous. As a result, swing states are often the deciding factor in the presidential election. Swing states generally receive much more attention from candidates, and much more money is usually spent on campaigning in swing states as well. For example, Florida was visited over thirty-five times by each candidate during the 2016 election, while California wasn't visited at all. This is because California has historically voted blue, and was thus considered to be a certain win for the Democrats. While the list of swing states changes over time, the swing states for the 2020 presidential election were Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.


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