In the U.S., our presidential elections are decided using the Electoral College. The system is meant to balance election power between the federal and state governments. This lesson explains what the Electoral College is and how it works.

Electoral College

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 produced a new structure for our government. The Twelfth Amendment’s Electoral College resulted from a compromise between the convention’s delegates. They could not agree on whether Congress or the people should select the president.

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The Electoral College is an indirect system for electing the United States president using Electoral College votes. Its goal is to divide the power of selection between Congress and the people and allow a balance between federal and state powers in keeping with federalism. It was a controversial method for electing a president when it was first adopted and remains the subject of much debate to this day.

Electors and Votes

In the U.S., voters do not directly vote for a presidential candidate. Instead, the system is designed so that a slate of electors votes on behalf of each state. The electors are representatives of each state and members of the Electoral College. They are usually selected at state party conventions and are typically political party leaders. Each elector receives one Electoral College vote.

Theoretically, each elector casts his or her vote on behalf of the population of his or her state. Practically speaking, however, almost all states use a winner-takes-all method. In other words, the presidential candidate with the most national popular votes in that state wins all of that state’s Electoral College votes. The popular vote is the sum of all votes cast in a particular state.

Only Nebraska and Maine use a proportional system. Their Electoral College votes can be split because those two states award electoral votes according to the percentage of the popular vote a candidate received.

Electoral College Process

There are currently 538 total Electoral College votes. Of these, 100 votes represent our U.S. senators. Remember that there are two U.S. senators from each of our 50 states. The remaining 438 votes are divided between our congressional districts, including the District of Columbia. Each of our 435 congressional districts has one vote, and the District of Columbia has three votes.

So, the number of Electoral College votes a state has is dependent on how many congressional districts that state has. Congressional districts are allocated based on the National Census, or population of that state. For example, the state of New York is densely populated. It has 29 Electoral College votes. Alaska’s population is relatively sparse. It has three Electoral College votes.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say Smith and Doe are our presidential candidates. Smith wins the popular vote in New York because more New Yorkers voted for Smith than for Doe. Smith is therefore allocated all 29 of New York’s Electoral College votes. Doe wins the popular vote in Alaska. He’s therefore allocated all three of Alaska’s Electoral College votes. For a candidate to be elected president, he or she must win at least 270 Electoral College votes.

So far, the Electoral College has always produced a president. However, if no candidate receives 270 Electoral College votes, the House of Representatives will decide the election. Each state receives one vote.

Problems with the Electoral College

Now let’s take a quick look at the main criticism of the Electoral College. Notice that it’s possible for a candidate to win the presidency without winning the national popular vote.

This scenario happened in the 2000 presidential election. Vice President Al Gore received more popular votes than candidate George W. Bush. Though Bush was declared the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes on election night, those votes were in dispute for several days while Florida conducted a ballot recount. The United States Supreme Court eventually halted the recount due to constitutional concerns. This allowed Florida’s previous certification of electoral votes to stand. With Florida’s 25 votes, Bush received 271 total Electoral College votes and was declared the winner by a very narrow margin.

Additionally, some people argue that the Electoral College allows some people’s votes to matter more than other people’s. This was a common view after the 2008 presidential election. Candidate Barack Obama received just 53% of the national popular vote, yet an impressive 68% of the electoral vote. This created the sense that Obama won handily. However, only 8 million popular votes separated Obama and candidate John McCain. This is a narrow margin considering the approximately 125 million popular votes cast in that election.

Despite the arguments, changes to the Electoral College are unlikely. Because the system was established through the U.S. Constitution, any changes require a Constitutional Amendment.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The Electoral College is an indirect system for electing the United States president using Electoral College votes. Votes are cast by each state, using a slate of electors. The electors are representatives of each state and members of the Electoral College. Each elector has one Electoral College vote.

There are currently 538 total Electoral College votes. Of these, 100 votes represent our U.S. senators. The remaining 438 votes are divided between our congressional districts, including the District of Columbia. Congressional districts are allocated based on the National Census, so some states have many districts and many Electoral College votes, where others have very few districts and very few Electoral College votes.

Though each state can choose how to divide its Electoral College votes, almost all states use a winner-takes-all method. This means that the candidate with the most popular votes in a state wins all of that state’s Electoral College votes. It takes at least 270 Electoral College votes to win a presidential election.

Learning Outcomes

When you are done with the lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe the Electoral College
  • Explain how a candidate can win the popular vote yet not win the presidency