What Is the Electoral College Exactly? All Your Questions Answered

What is the Electoral College exactly?

When you vote for a presidential candidate in November, youíre actually casting a vote for an elector representing that candidateís party. In mid-December, that elector will attend a national convention with hundreds of other electors, referred to as the Electoral College, in order to cast the ďrealĒ ballots to determine the president.

This election, there are a total of 538 electoral votes at play. Hence, a presidential candidate needs a total of 270 elector votes in order to secure victory.

How do they determine the number of electors in each state?

A lot of people assume that the number of electors is based on a stateís population, but thatís only sort of true. More accurately, itís the number of congressional representatives that each state has. Therefore, the lowest amount of electoral votes a state can have is three, accounting for two Senators and at least one U.S. representative.

Because of this minimum, smaller states have the advantage. One electoral vote in Wyoming, for example, represents just 143,000 people. In New York, however, a single electoral vote represents the votes of about 500,000 people.

So itís about including smaller states in the process?

Indeed, thatís one of the main arguments in favor of†maintaining the Electoral College. By giving smaller states a little bit more of a voice, it ostensibly forces candidates to campaign in small states, whereas they might otherwise focus on heavily-populated pockets if it were just a popular vote.

At the same time, you rarely see presidential candidates gunning hard for states with just three electoral votes. Instead, politicians are looking for victories in states with high electoral counts to hit that critical 270 mark.

However, because 48 out of 50 states use a winner-takes-all system of awarding their electoral votes, most states have now been deemed ďsafeĒ states for a certain party. Only about a dozen states have the potential to swing for either party in a given election year, meaning that presidential candidates focus their money and energy in these particular areas rather than evenly across the country.

With that in mind, if weíre trying to develop a system that requires candidates to be concerned with the needs of voters in all parts of the country, the Electoral College isnít it.

Why did the founding fathers think the Electoral College was the way to go?

Once the thirteen original colonies-turned-states declared independence from Great Britain, they were understandably skeptical of establishing a large, central government given their recent experience.

In order to get all of the states on board for allowing federal powers, the founding fathers devised a system that would make each stateís input seem important. A straight-up popular vote would obscure each stateís individual desires, while the Electoral College would make it clear where each state stood.

Thatís it?

Thereís actually a second school of thought that suggests the founding fathers just plain didnít trust the general population with a decision this important. As influential people of their time, they felt it would be wiser to have a smaller body (like themselves) in place to make the final decision.

Some of the founding fathers were convinced that the Electoral College would prevent a terrible and/or corrupt president from being elected. If the public had been hoodwinked by a captivating yet devious candidate, the electors could be the last line of defense to stop this injustice.

Remember, the founders specifically created a republic rather than a true democracy. Having people vote for representatives who would then vote on the real issues was similar to the overall governmental structure they devised.

Wait, so is there a chance an elector might not vote for the candidate the public chose?

Yes, electors can disregard their stateís popular votes, but stray votes have only occurred a handful of times throughout history, and they have never come close to altering the electionís outcome.

Roughly half of the states have laws requiring electors to vote according to the stateís decision, but the rest do not. Still, itís not a likely occurrence because in todayís age, parties choose electors based on their long-term loyalty. Electors are typically chosen because they have demonstrated that they wonít rock the boat.

Does using the Electoral College ever make a difference?†

Usually, the Electoral College vote mirrors the popular vote, meaning that all of the confusing rules are irrelevant. Usually. Four times in history, a candidate has won more votes overall but lost in the electoral college math. This occurred most recently in 2000 when George W. Bush snuck by Al Gore, despite Gore having received over half a million more votes.

Canít we just get rid of the Electoral College?

Thatís a popular topic of conversation that occurs every four years, but is difficult to put into action because the Electoral College is part of the Constitution. A Constitutional amendment would be necessary to handle elections differently, and at any given point, at least one party probably thinks it has the advantage with the system remaining as is.


Brian F
Brian F11 months ago

I think the electoral college should be abolished, and elections be decided by the popular vote. Also we need to get rid of the Democrats horribly unfair super delegate rule, that gives the incumbant over 400 super delegates, before having a challenger. That's called cheating and the super delegate rule is unfairly used by the Democrats to maintain power, and prevent challengers like Bernie Sanders from winning.

Tim P2 years ago

We need the direct electoral instead. Independent is a popular third party. I have a link below to my petition for it... We still are to leave people with individual freedom. Mike Bloomberg because of the electoral college isn't running for president.


We need independent on all ballots one day with being a direct vote.

Major Sewell
Major Sewell2 years ago

Interesting but, as you say, it does not reliably deliver a democratic result not so much because of the use of an lector college system for because of the desire to ensure that all states have a voice. To an outsider like me the real problem seems to be the "winner takes all" approach used by so many of the states, especially when this is allied with the electors being absolutely bound to vote for the candidate from the party for which they stood in the election. Apart from all else, to me this means that there is little point in actually having the college at all - you might just as well have a "virtual college" and decide the result by simply adding up the number of electors for each party in each state - or am I missing some subtle point?.

Teresa Antela
Teresa Antela2 years ago


Mina X.
Past Member 2 years ago

Yes Margaret, a "tyranny of a few" is much better than a "tyranny of majority". Again, america is a republic. If we were truly united or even a democratic society, there would be no need for political parties or the electoral college. A true democracy would count each vote. How do you get a "tyranny of majority" by counting everyone's vote? The founding fathers were a misogynous bunch that were quite the hypocrites. And yes, they had good ideas to a point but wanted to keep the division of the classes in tact and felt the "working class" not fit to make such decisions. Bold arrogance. So, you do as you please and cast your vote accordingly & the electoral college you talk so highly about will decide if your vote gets counted towards THEIR decision. I will also do as I see fit without a single consideration for your opinion. Okie dokie

Margaret F.
Margaret F2 years ago

Mina X if you think your vote doesn't count then please feel free to stay home on November 8th. Or move to a state dominated by your favored political party. Our founding fathers were smart. They didn't want the "tyranny of the majority"; social media is proving how that can be a possibility.

Margaret F.
Margaret F2 years ago

The electoral college has worked well. Keeping in mind it's the popular vote/electoral votes in each state that counts, not the national popular vote. Why would states want to give that up? And, like my college political history stated, "what's the difference if in a winner take all contest if it's via the electoral college or the popular vote (in each state)" Susan E thank you for your good explanations!

Susan E
Susan E2 years ago

D Blossfield - Dividing more states’ electoral votes by congressional district winners would magnify the worst features of the Electoral College system.

If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country's congressional districts. In 2012, the Democratic candidate would have needed to win the national popular vote by more than 7 percentage points in order to win the barest majority of congressional districts. In 2014, Democrats would have needed to win the national popular vote by a margin of about nine percentage points in order to win a majority of districts.

In 2012, for instance, when Obama garnered nearly a half million more votes in Michigan than Romney, Romney won nine of the state’s 14 congressional districts.

Nationwide, there are now only 10 "battleground" districts that are expected to be competitive in the 2016 presidential election. With the present deplorable 48 state-level winner-take-all system, 38 states (including California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, 98% of the nation's congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally

The district approach would not provide incentive for pres

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld2 years ago

Susan E.,
One method of changing the process is for all the states to move towards district winners (like Maine and Nebraska). That would eliminate the disproportionate campaigning in the battleground states, but remain within the confines of the constitution. This would not guarantee that the popular vote winner would win in the electoral college, but the odds of such would increase. In 2008, Obama received 53.7% of the popular vote, but 67.8% of the electoral votes. Obama did win 54.4% of the Congressional districts, and 56% of the states. The final electoral college vote would've been 296 - 242 (55%-45%). It would also give greater influence to the Congressional districts, and (perhaps) allow them to be drawn more fairly. Of course, the possibility exists for either party to influence the construction of these districts to their own advantage. But that already occurs today.

Susan E
Susan E2 years ago

j chapman- Now 48 states have winner-take-all state laws for awarding electoral votes, 2 have district winner laws. Neither method is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.

The electors are and will be dedicated party activist supporters of the winning party’s candidate who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable rubberstamped votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

The current system does not provide some kind of check on the "mobs." There have been 22,991 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 17 have been cast in a deviant way, for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector's own political party (one clear faithless elector, 15 grand-standing votes, and one accidental vote). 1796 remains the only instance when the elector might have thought, at the time he voted, that his vote might affect the national outcome.

States have enacted and can enact laws that guarantee the votes of their presidential electors

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state laws guaranteeing faithful voting by presidential electors (because the states have plenary power over presidential electors).

If a candidate wins the popular vote in states with 270 electoral votes, there is no reason to think that the Electoral College would prevent that candidate from being elected President of the United States