Written by Makena Eccles
The Electoral College is “a group of people chosen from each U.S. state who meet to elect the President and Vice President of the U.S. based on the votes of all the people in each state” (Merriam-Webster). Each state has a certain number of electors (as shown in the graphic below) based on the population size of the state that meet up in the state’s capital after the November election to cast their votes for the next president and vice president of the United States.
Taken from Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019
These electors are typically loyal members of their political party. States have different methods of choosing these electors, such as the decision of a specialized committee or the governor. After citizens of a state vote for the presidential candidate of their choice, the winner’s political party (Republican or Democrat) will send their electors to cast their votes. This means that voters are not voting for a president, but rather for electors to elect the president. It is mandatory for electors to vote for the candidate that won the popular vote in their state, but they mostly do.
It is also important to note that in 48 states and Washington D.C., whichever party wins the popular vote is the only party to send electors. The exceptions to this winner-takes-all system are Maine and Nebraska, where votes can be divided among each congressional district. So, Maine and Nebraska may send out electors from *both* parties to vote.
Some see the Electoral College as an unjust system because the winner of the popular vote, whoever received the most votes from citizens nationwide, doesn’t necessarily win the election. According to the National Archives, the 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016 elections had outcomes that differed from the popular vote. This means that the other candidate would have won these elections if the popular vote was used instead of the Electoral College. The reason this occurs is because whether 95% or 51% of voters in any given state vote for a certain candidate, the same number of electors are sent to vote for that candidate. This can also occur because electors don’t have to vote according to the popular vote of their state when electing a candidate, they can just vote for whomever they want.
Another issue that some have with this system is that certain states that consistently vote Democratic or Republican don’t influence the election very much. Some would argue that states such as Washington, California, and Wyoming, that are either strongly Democratic or Republican, are not worth the time of the opposing parties’ candidate because the overall opinion of these states cannot be easily swayed. This can be an issue because some states with high populations don’t tend to change the results of the election because they are consistent with the party they vote for. It is often up to “swing states” that don’t consistently vote either Democratic or Republican to turn the tides of the election.
Below is a map of the U.S. that shows which party each state is currently leaning. States that are brown or light blue are the most likely to switch parties by the November election.
Taken from the 270 to Win website, 2020
The reason that the U.S. uses the Electoral College is because it’s a compromise decided on by the Founding Fathers, who wanted to find a balance between an all-out popular vote of the citizens and an elitist Congressional vote for president. There have been many efforts to change this system because it doesn’t always produce the outcome that most eligible voters want. Changing it would require an amendment to the Constitution, which is a very difficult process. For an amendment to be passed, 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states would need to approve it. Over 700 proposals have been made to Congress to change or eliminate the Electoral College, but none have passed through both the House and the Senate.
Many Americans believe that it should be abolished, so much so that 58% of U.S. adults agree that the Constitution should be amended so that the winner of the popular vote would always win the election. 81% of Democrats argue that this amendment should be made, whereas only 32% of Republicans agree. The most recent example of an election having an outcome that differed from the results of the popular vote was the 2016 election. Donald Trump won the Electoral College whereas Hilary Clinton won the popular vote, thereby instating him as President of the United States.
Knowing how the election process works is important so that educated decisions can be made when voting. If you would like to learn more about the Electoral College and what changes could be made, check out our Take Action section.