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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 🙂

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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