The Electors Determine the Presidency: Understanding the Electoral College

Art By Progress America

By Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

With election season upon us there have been some renewed calls to abolish the electoral college. Many the opponents of the college argue that it is unfair and general elections should be decided by popular vote. But I have noticed that many people do not understand the electoral college and the procedures involved in the decision making. In this post I want to re-share an article published last year that outlines its function and the voting process as it relates to the electoral college.

This article was originally published on March 15, 2019 on the Democracy and Me Site.

XII Amendment to the United States Constitution

“The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and all persons voted for as Vice-President and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate…”
The Twelfth Amendment

The Twelfth Amendment (Amendment XII) to the United States Constitution is the amendment that outlines the procedure and process for electing the President and Vice President. Our most recent president Donald J. Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. This was also the case four other times in US history with John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000. The recent case with President Trump has sparked an old debate about whether or not the Electoral College is necessary, and fair. This article will discuss some of the basic details of what the Electoral College is, its function and the historic justification for this process.

Direct Democracy versus Representative Democracy
Citizens in the US do not actually vote directly for the president, as the country does not function on a national level as a direct democracy. In fact, the United States can be better described as a representative democracy. When citizens go to the polls to vote for a new president they are actually voting for persons to represent them from their state called Electors. Those Electors will then vote for the president 41 days after the general election. Thus, one’s vote does not exactly decide who becomes president; the elected individuals do.

Who and What are Electors?
There are always a total of 538 Electors that are each given a vote for the president. A state’s number of Electors equals the number of representatives plus two Electors for both senators the state has in the United States Congress. These electors are selected by political parties at the state level. So the count goes like this, there are 435 representatives and 100 senators total in US Congress, plus the three electors allocated to Washington, D.C, which totals 538. The amount of Electors each state gets is based on its population, which is counted every ten years with the census. Since each state’s electoral votes are equal to its number of house and senate seats, a shifting population can affect the number of electoral votes each state has. States can gain and lose the number of Electors they have based on their population, but the total number is always 53.

Some states require Electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote, also political parties in certain states have rules that govern how Electors vote. Having said that, the Constitution or federal law does not require Electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states. It is also important to note that no Elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged (Occasionally some Electors deviate from political party mandates).

When the Electoral College meets again in January 2020 for the 59th time in American history, they will be casting the only official vote for President. This body of 538 electors will “be acting as the most powerful political institution in the world.” In 48 states, electoral votes are apportioned on a winner-takes-all basis, while Maine and Nebraska allocate electoral votes by congressional district, with two additional votes reserved for the statewide winner.

What has been the rationale for the Electoral College?
Columnist Marc Schulman gives two main reasons. Firstly, the Electoral College was designed to create a buffer between the general population and the selection of a President. This may be difficult to understand in our time, but in short, the founding fathers were afraid of direct election to the Presidency. Their fear was that a tyrant, charismatic or influential leader (Whether through money, resources or military might) would rise up and either manipulate the masses or coerce them to vote in their favor. The second primary reason for the Electoral College was to strengthen the powers of the states with smaller populations. The thinking was that if a direct voting process were in place the Presidential candidates would simply focus all of their campaigning on the larger states, and completely ignore the smaller ones. So as we prepare for the upcoming election season let us re-evaluate the pros and cons of the US Electoral College. Below are lesson plans and other resources for teachers and students to offer clear and concise resources on the Electoral College process.

Lesson Plans /Teaching Resources

How We Elect a President: The Electoral College (Grades 10–12)

The Electoral Process

Election of the President and Vice President: Electoral College

The Final Vote for President: Learning About the Electoral College

Lesson Plan: Debating the Electoral College

What’s the Deal with the Electoral College?

What Is the Electoral College?

Electoral College Overview

Decode the Electoral College and predict the next president – Lesson Plan

Electoral College Lesson Plan

Electoral College Lesson Plan- Middle School

Other Resources

Electoral College Fast Facts

In Defense of the Electoral College

What if top vote-getter became president? Plan would bypass Electoral College.

Delaware moves to give its Electoral College votes to the popular vote winner

Electoral College an anachronism

Democrats Need to Make Getting Rid of the Electoral College a Top Priority

The Electoral College Was Meant to Stop Men Like Trump From Being President

Video Resources About the Electoral College

Does your vote count? The Electoral College explained – Christina Greer

How the Electoral College Works

The Electoral College


How Does the Electoral College Work

What is the Electoral College?

Split Electoral Votes in Maine and Nebraska

Who are the electors?

United States Electoral College

Shifting Population, Shifting Vote

Why We Need the Electoral College

Presidents Winning Without Popular Vote


  1. The National Popular Vote bill is 73% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.
    The bill changes state statewide winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    It requires enacting states with 270 electoral votes to award their electoral votes to the winner of the most national popular votes.

    All votes would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where voters live.

  2. This was a very interesting article and cleared up many misconceptions regarding the Electoral College, misconceptions that I have had myself. From an educators standpoint, there are many great resources listed in this article that I believe would be very beneficial when teaching a lesson on the Electoral College. It is extremely important to know the difference as to why the Electoral College was originally created and how it affects our modern society. There are great arguments on both sides but I think it is very important for us to look at the various parts of the Electoral College in determining our President and be able to recognize its role.

  3. There has always been confusion by young voters and experienced voters as to where do their votes go and do they mean anything? And is the elected candidate based on our casted votes? The simple answer to the second question is “No.” There have been many calls to abolish the Electoral College, but why? Well, as many of us understand, the American voter votes for a representative in hopes they will follow the votes and go with the chosen candidate. As a result of the XII Amendment and the twelve Amendment highlights, is it possible for the U.S. PResident to be elected with the majority of electoral votes (requiring 270 electoral votes given from the 50 U.S. states) and losing the popular vote (number of votes casted for the candidates.) In the most recent presidential election, 2016, Donald J. Trump won the Electoral College votes but lost the popular vote to Hillary R. Clinton. It is important to mention, a Direct Democracy is different from a Representative Democracy. Citizens in the U.S. do not vote directly for the president, as the country does not function on a national level as a direct democracy. We are indirectly voting for president by voting for the persons to represent our names and casted ballots come Election Day (Nov. 3rd.)
    Some politicians and experienced voters may recall President Trump’s call to remove the Electoral College prior to the 2016 general U.S. Election — although, the President’s opinions on the Electoral College has thus changed and there had been no notion to remove the Electoral College as he had won the Electoral College; while losing the popular vote in 2016. Many voters believe that the same outcome is inevitable as we are only days before Election Day in America on November 3, 2020. There are a total of 538 Electors that are responsible for any given vote for the next president (or incumbent president of the States.) Some Electors vote based on popular vote, while some electors may be split on the governing rules of the political parties in specific states. As a result, it may be a little difficult for a common ‘Red’ state to go ‘Blue’ and vice-versa on Election Day. The Electors are selected at the state level and the count goes like this: 435 representatives and 100 senators total in the U.S. Congress, plus the three allocated to Washington D.C., totalling 538 selected representatives that help choose our next president come November 3, 2020 on Election Day in America.

    With all this said, please go out and vote! I hope to see a lot of poll workers, watchers, and young and even elder, experienced voters out on Election Day come Tuesday, November 3, 2020…OR even before this date to cast an early vote for the 2020 general election.

    -Daniel L. 🙂

  4. Dr. Child’s article about the Electoral College is a fitting reminder right before a very important United States election. Many are confused by the Electoral College and do not understand why the President is not elected by popular vote. As Dr. Child’s points out, the founders envisioned a system where there was a buffer between the public and the highest office in the land. This buffer comes in the form of the Electoral College. There are many arguments for and against keeping the Electoral College, but I think the safeguard put in place by the framers of the Constitution is out of date. For example, in the 1700s, the public was less likely to have a lot of information on the candidates and the issues. Today, we have the world at our fingertips with the internet. The public should be more educated now regarding candidates and policies than they were then. Perhaps the most telling part of the Electoral College is that electors are not necessarily bound by the results of the state they represent. While no elector has strayed in a way that impacted the final result, who knows if that could be a possibility in the future.

  5. As a Social Studies educator, this is a subject that we can continue to look towards for opportunities for passionate and pertinent debate and discussion within the classroom. Dr. Childs reminds us that while the idea of a popular vote has merit, it is one that must be approached with caution. It is fair to assume that should the United States move toward the popular vote tomorrow, future elections would only focus on those areas with enormous populations, thereby failing to acknowledge the smaller states. If we can ignore them for an election, then it is possible to ignore them when they need help with infrastructure, shortages, or disaster as well for not voting with the popular opinion. It has always remained a mystery to me why we do not follow the example of Maine and Nebraska on a national level. This model both protects areas with smaller population density and also takes more of the popular vote into account by congressional district with the ability to split votes as opposed to our current winner take all system.

  6. I believe that students should be taught about the electoral college in social studies classrooms, ideally in middle school classrooms. It would be interesting to hear their opinions about whether the United States should continue using this system, or make the switch to a popular vote at some point in the future. There are certainly arguments for and against the electoral college, and I would enjoy teaching a lesson where the students learn more about it, decide whether the electoral college is serving its intended purpose or not, and begin to think about how the electoral college affects our election process.

    I enjoyed looking through the linked resources and lesson plans at the end of the article, I could see myself using these in my classroom!

  7. I love that this article clears up any misconceptions about the electoral college. Especially in
    the area I live in, the calls to abolish the electoral college have been strong and is considered a huge social issue. Once explained though, people seem to at the very least understand why it exists. This subject can lead itself to a debate activity that could be done within a classroom setting. Overall this subject is very interesting and very current.

  8. This was a very interesting article to read and without question offered multiple resources that I found interesting and will certainly hang on to for my future classes. The debate between popular vote and electoral college has become a rather contentious subject in contemporary politics, especially given the disparity in some of the recent elections between who won the popular vote, and who won the electoral college. However, as a student of history, I find it important to note that the electoral college is in place to protect ourselves from “majority rule” policies and I only have to turn a few pages back in your average textbook to see the dangers of what allowing the majority to rule over the minority can lead to.

  9. This article is perfect for the time we are in now. I saw all week leading up to election day the debate between the pros and cons of the electoral college and those who hate it and those who honor the age old tradition that decides our representatives. The resources in this article are awesome and for sure will be used my me in the future. I think just like this article we should teach and clear up misunderstandings about the electoral college. I think a lot of people just do not truly understand the way it works and why it was put in place and why it still exists over 200 years later.

  10. This was a very good read, especially with being in election season currently. I think many people should read this because it clears up many misconceptions that people may have about the electoral college and the form of democracy we have in our nation. I think it is very important for people to understand the reasoning behind the electoral college.

  11. Reading this article felt very fitting since we just had our Election Day one day ago, and we are still in the process of naming our new President who will take office in January. I had some concerns about the Electoral College and the entire process, but after reading this, I have a more firm understanding. Specifically, I could see it being a problem of candidates only campaigning in the states with larger populations in order to reach a larger amount of people at one time and not even worrying about the lower-populated states. I also found the lesson plan called “Debating the Electoral College” very informational and something that could be helpful in the classroom because it allows for students to examine the current process that we have and to consider ways that they may see to improve the process.

  12. This is a great article too help clear up any misconceptions that adults might have about the Electoral College but can also be used in an elementary classroom for 3rd to 5th graders. In this article, DR. Childs clearly explains how each state’s electors are determined by population and that presidential candidates are not elected directly by popular vote but rather by the Electoral College. I remember as a young kid when someone first told me that we don’t actually vote for our President. I was so discouraged and was really confused by what that meant. Then I had government class in high school and they stressed the importance of voting, but all I could think about was how my vote didn’t directly determine who becomes President. I think it’s really important as educators that we help students understand why the Electoral College is in place, so that young adults won’t feel like I did, as if their vote really didn’t matter, and be discouraged to vote. I will be sharing this information in my future classroom during election season.

  13. Thank you for sharing this article. I was very interested in reading about this topic because I have been hearing many misconceptions around this topic. From this article, I have learned exactly about the Electoral College and the reason it was created. It also has allowed me to think about some of the pros and cons about having it.
    I think it is important that students learn about these type of topics in their social studies classes. This will allow students to have a better understanding during times like these. The resources provided will allow me to learn more, and will allow me to have a better understanding when teaching my future students.

    Like mentioned

  14. I loved reading this article as a way to clear up my misconceptions of the electoral college. This is my first presidential election as I missed it by two months 4 years ago, and I never thought to fully educate myself in this topic since I felt like it did not really apply to me in high school, which was ignorant. I loved reading the reasoning behind why our Founding Fathers avoided the direct voting process and how the same idea has not really changed even still today. My original mindset was like wondering why certain states were so many “points”, but this article definitely guides you on the path to becoming more educated in the election, as it should be. Thank you for this article!

  15. I certainly have a better understanding of the electoral college and the process. I think it’s very important that students understand the importance of the electoral college and how elections really work. I’m not quite sure that I agree it is the best process or that its working well now, because I live in a county with more than 10,000 people, but the three big cities in my state decide my vote. I don’t agree with that but I’m not sure how to fix it either.
    Regardless of my beliefs, I am glad to have resources to teach about the electoral college because I’ve never been super-clear on how it all works together!

  16. This post definitely was a great article to read, as it cleared up any misconceptions that I had on the Electoral College. I (like many other young adults) have been confused on the reason that the Electoral College has been set up in the first place. I understand why the Electoral College exists, although I feel that it isn’t as important anymore since times have begun to change. This year has proven history for the popular vote turnout, which there has been fear of coercion of votes in the past and today. The results have shown that the popular vote doesn’t go hand-in-hand with the electoral college votes, which could quite possibly provide different outcomes. What also doesn’t make quite sense to me is that some states have a lot more electoral college votes than others, which can definitely change the outcome. Due to all of these factors, it would be great to re-examine the Electoral College so that the voting process would fit into modern day. I think it is essential for students to learn about the Electoral College, when they are taught about the government system(s). Although students won’t be voting in the election, it is important that they understand the government, as they will begin to develop their opinions in the upper elementary level(s).

  17. I think the electoral college is very important. States that have small populations will basically have no say in the presidential election without the electoral college. I think that this topic needs to be better taught in school. It can be confusing to understand, but the people of the United States need to know why it is used. People are always going to argue every election whether or not we should use it, but they at least should have a basic understanding before giving their opinion. This article did a great job of explain the electoral college and explaining the misconceptions that go with it. I will definitely use the resources it provided to teach my future students about the electoral college.

  18. I found this article to be extremely helpful in clearing up the misconceptions that I had about the Electoral College. From a student standpoint, I did not learn about the Electoral College until high school; and even then we did not get into great detail. This left me with many questions and confusions as an adult. From an educators standpoint, the earlier students are learning about this topic, the better. There are certainly ways to introduce the concept in the intermediate grades with a developmentally appropriate lesson. I will definitely be keeping the resources provided for my future classroom!

  19. I chose to read this article because the electoral college has never made much sense to me: I would think, “Why have the people vote if the end result depends solely on the electoral college?”
    I think I was under the impression that it was a very small group of high up government people just going their opinions; but I was mistaken. This section of the article broke down the numbers of the electoral college very plainly: “So the count goes like this, there are 435 representatives and 100 senators total in US Congress, plus the three electors allocated to Washington, D.C, which totals 538. The amount of Electors each state gets is based on its population…States can gain and lose the number of Electors they have based on their population, but the total number is always 53”.
    After reading this, I felt more at ease about how my presidents are elected into office. I also now feel more confident that my vote counts! I now can see that the electoral college really is a mostly accurate representation of what the people want. But, I was still in the fog about how the electoral college’s votes can overthrow the popular vote…and why? The following quotes from the article helped me to understand this better: “…the founding fathers were afraid of direct election to the Presidency. Their fear was that a tyrant, charismatic or influential leader (Whether through money, resources or military might) would rise up and either manipulate the masses or coerce them to vote in their favor”.
    This part of the election process also helps “to strengthen the powers of the states with smaller populations. The thinking was that if a direct voting process were in place the Presidential candidates would simply focus all of their campaigning on the larger states, and completely ignore the smaller ones”.

  20. I think this article does an excellent job of explaining the electoral college. This is not an easy thing to understand and this article explains it beautifully. I like how you explain that the electors are a “buffer zone” between the general masses and the White House. I found it interesting that some electors did not vote in favor of the popular vote and were not brought to court for it. It shows that people really respect the system.

  21. Reading this article, one quote in particular really stuck out to me and honestly made me laugh a little bit. “Their fear was that a tyrant, charismatic or influential leader (Whether through money, resources or military might) would rise up and either manipulate the masses or coerce them to vote in their favor.” If one of the reasons the electoral college was established was to prevent this then why does it still happen? The 2016 Trump campaign reeks of this with smear campaigns against Hillary and the way he appealed to the masses. My personal opinions aside, I’m not sure that the electoral college is accomplishing what it was set out to accomplish. Furthermore, I believe all votes should be weighed equally for something as important as this. A lower populace state shouldn’t get extra say under the guise of “fairness.” If anything, it’s unfair. The votes should be counted as they are and reflected as such; who the American populace votes for in majority should be president.

  22. Knowledge is the key to everything, it can help you critically think about a person, place, or thing. In this case it can help you dissect the Electoral College and gain a better understanding for its necessity. This article does a wonderful job of sticking to the facts and carrying a natural stance. There are obviously many people who are against the Electoral College, their reasons widely vary. In some instances, people simply do not understand what it is. The article does a great job of thoroughly explaining its origins, reasoning, and pros and cons.
    I really like how the article started out explaining the fact that we are more of a representative democracy than a direct democracy. The distinction is important and can help people better understand our country and why we may have an electoral college. Knowing each state has Electors, where these Electors come from, and how they work grants people a better understanding of how our election system works. “The amount of Electors each state gets is based on its population, which is counted every ten years with the census” (Childs, 2019). This directly relates to one of the main reasons we have an Electoral College. The Electoral College was set in place to resist future tyranny and give voice to everyone not just the pockets population masses (where smaller states would be ignored). Looking at this article as a future educator highly motivates me, it is important for students to understand the history of our election system so they can preserve it for future generations.

  23. The Electoral College is a concept that is very important to understand when talking about politics. Everyone has different viewpoints on it, which is fine, but the most important concept regarding it is understanding what purpose it serves. There was one quote from the passage that directly stuck out to me and that was, “In fact, the United States can be better described as a representative democracy.” This is a great example showing that the people don’t directly vote for the president (known as the popular vote), but instead, their votes go to the electoral college where the Electors will represent the people. Some people believe that the electoral college is something that we should get rid of, yet others believe it is something that is critical to how the government is ran. This is a great article that can clear up any misconceptions or viewpoints that people have regarding the Electoral College.

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