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. I’ve gained a better knowledge of the electoral college and the process in general. I believe it is critical for kids to comprehend the significance of the electoral college and how elections actually function. People, on the other hand, appear to comprehend why it exists once it is described. This topic lends itself to a debating exercise that might be conducted in the classroom. Overall, this is a highly fascinating and timely topic. 

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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