Electoral College, Explained

The candidate who wins the most electoral votes gets to be president. Learn how it works and the history behind it in this electoral college 101.
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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With the 2020 election fast approaching, voters should understand that they don’t vote directly for the President of the United States.

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is a Constitutional process established by the founding fathers to elect the President and Vice President of the United States. It was designed as a compromise. Some delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention wanted Congress to choose the President while others preferred a democratic popular vote. The Electoral College satisfied both requirements.

The leaders who built the framework of the US government also wanted to ensure that states with smaller populations were fairly represented in the election and expressed concerns that the common man was not well informed enough to choose an effective President.

How does the Electoral College work?

The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. The President is not chosen directly by qualified voters but by a majority vote of at least 270 electors. Each presidential candidate has pre-assigned electors in each state.

Political parties in every state choose a new slate of electors during each presidential election cycle. States have different laws governing the process and political operatives will often choose from a pool of individuals committed to the objectives of the party.

Each state’s appropriation of electors is equal to its representation in Congress. For example, Colorado has seven members in the US of Representatives and two Senators. Therefore, the state has nine electors. Texas has 36 House members, two Senators, and 38 electors. Although the District of Columbia isn’t a state, the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution allocated it three electors.

Every four years, during the Presidential election, voters in each state choose the electors for a particular candidate. Citizens voters do not choose the President directly. The candidate’s name on the ballot is just a stand-in for a group of electors who, in most cases, will vote for that candidate. Most states use a winner take all system that distributes all electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote. Maine and Nebraska use a slightly different system.

Once the election is concluded each state’s governor prepares a document that lists all the Presidential candidates on the state’s ballot. This “Certificate of Ascertainment” also includes the names of each candidate’s electors, the name of the winning candidate and a listing of electors that will attend a meeting in December.

This “Meeting of Electors” usually takes place at State capitals and the electors vote for the President and the Vice President using separate ballots. Those votes are recorded onto a “Certificate of Vote”, a document that is subsequently sent to the National Archives and to Congress.

Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate come together in early January at a joint session of Congress to tally all the states’ electoral votes. The sitting Vice President oversees vote count, announces the results and officially declares the next President and Vice President of the United States.

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Pros and Cons of the Electoral College


  • Smaller states get a voice. Without the Electoral College presidential candidates would be less incentivized to consider the needs of less populated states. Wyoming has a population of just under 600,000 residents, New York has just under 20 million. While New York has 29 electoral votes, Wyoming still has three. In a tight race, those three votes can make a difference. If there were no electoral college a candidate would certainly consider high profile issues like New York’s infrastructure problem and Wall Street’s efforts to affect the global economy. They would be less inclined to address Wyoming’s energy concerns and certainly wouldn’t make a campaign stop in the Cowboy State.
  • The Electoral College helps ensure the election concludes in a timely manner. If there are voting or tallying irregularities time consuming national recounts are not necessary. The Electoral College affords officials a fair opportunity to recount votes in specific states.
  • The Electoral College accommodates a smooth transition of power. The structure of the Electoral College requires the President-elect to achieve national support. Everyone, everywhere may not like the results of the election. Nonetheless, in order to win 270 electoral votes, many people, everywhere support the victor. That fractured cohesiveness, in theory, encourages a smooth transition of power.


  • The Electoral College can disregard the will of the majority. In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the popular vote. In 2018 Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Both lost the Electoral College and neither became president. Al Gore lost to Geoge Bush by just five Electoral votes. The Bush v Gore contest was so close that it came down to a single contested Florida district, later awarded to Bush by the US Supreme Court. Bush won the presidency by six electoral votes. Trump vs Clinton wasn’t as close but Trump’s victory represented an ideological sea change for those opposed to his rhetoric and policies. When disappointed voters consider the results of an Electoral victory they often get the feeling that their vote doesn’t matter.
  • Critics of the Electoral argue that swing states have too much electoral power. In any given, national election there are safe states and there are swing states. Political parties confidently rely on favorable vote tallies in safe states. Presently, California is a safe state for Democrats and Alabama is a safe state for Republicans. Presidential candidates may be less inclined to visit those states or take their needs into consideration. Swing states are far more competitive and can reasonably be won by either candidate. In the 2020 election battleground states like Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania would likely receive the lion’s share of allocated advertising dollars and much of the news media’s attention.
  • Rogue electors add uncertainty into the process. In most states electors are “unbound”. Without laws that require an elector to vote in accordance with the state’s popular vote or in lockstep with the victorious party’s wishes, a rogue elector could conceivably cast a ballot for any candidate. The honor system generally works and this rarely happens. Nonetheless, the potentiality concerns electoral critics. In 2016 a co-founded movement called the “Hamilton Electors” tried to find 37 electors to vote for a more moderate Republican than Donald Trump while in that same election Hilary Clinton lost five electors.

Electoral college vs the Popular vote.

Giving states with smaller populations a voice is the fundamental advantage that the Electoral College has over the popular vote. The process was designed to create a fair playing field and was constructed with American federalism in mind. Federalism affords smaller population states opportunities to affect government at the national level. Since the number of electors allotted to every state is calculated by adding House districts and Senate representation, and since every state has two Senate members, lesser populated states are guaranteed a seat, albeit a smaller one, at the nation’s election table.

The primary advantage to the popular vote over the Electoral College is that voters, regardless of state, are equally represented in the final, national vote tally. Critics consider the Electoral College undemocratic because individual votes are disproportionately more valuable in smaller states. Colorado has a population of 5.7 million. Wyoming’s population is almost 576,000. Colorado has nine electoral votes and Wyoming has three. Colorado has roughly 633,000 people per electoral vote. Wyoming has roughly 192,000 people per electoral vote. A Wyoming citizen’s vote is just over three and a half times more valuable than that of a Colorado voter.

Electoral college members: Who are the electors?

The 538 electors aren’t actually chosen until election day. Prior to the election political parties in each state choose a slate of potential electors. When voters go to the polls they’re not actually voting for a favored presidential candidate. They vote for the political party that will send its electors to the Electoral college. In 2016 the Republican party sent 306 members and the Democratic party sent 232.

The final 2016 electoral map

The final 2016 electoral map

According to the US Constitution, members of the House or Senate cannot be electors nor can any ”person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States.” In addition, the 14th Amendment forbids state officials who have “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies” from being electors.

In each state, the political parties choose potential electors on self-designated dates from the Spring to Fall. States have different laws regulating how electors are chosen and what their specific responsibilities would be. The selection process often takes place at state conventions.

In some states, like Alabama the process for choosing electors is straightforward. In August 2016, Alabama Republicans chose two electors at the party’s executive meeting in Huntsville and seven more were elected at district meetings.

In California Democratic Congressional and current Senate primary winners nominate electors while the state’s Republican party nominees for elected office, from Governor to Senate primary winners to state committee officers to the President of each Republican volunteer organization, choose electors.

Rantt Rundown

The Electoral College isn’t a place. It’s a process, a Constitutional compromise that we use to elect the President and Vice President of the United States every four years. After the election, 538 electors meet all around the nation, cast their votes and forward the results to Congress. This imperfect process, abhorred as often as it is lauded, was a fluid effort by the nation’s founders to consistently strive for a more perfect union.

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Rantt 101 // Elections / Electoral College