The Electors Determine the Presidency: Understanding the Electoral College

Art By Progress America https://tinyurl.com/y6rrwahh

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


References

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

10 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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”.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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