What is the Electoral College? What is its Purpose and Function?


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

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’m aware of the electoral college, but don’t have much knowledge of it. I didn’t understand the role that it played but now I have a better understanding of it. I’ve heard people say that it shouldn’t be allowed anymore and others saying that we need it.

  2. I knew of the electoral college but not anything with depth. After reading this article, my opinion on the electoral college is 50/50. I see some fair points but also things I didn’t understand.

  3. This is a great article for those who do not understand what the electoral college is and how it plays a role in the election. In my opinion, I do not think that this is a fair practice. 

  4. I do not think the electoral college vote is fair. I also think that students should have a better understanding of the process for electing a president.

  5. I like that the electoral college vote is fair. It depends by state how many votes it gets. So bigger states get more votes and smaller states get less votes. 

  6. With the election just “ending” for Kentucky’s governor I figured it would be a great time to read this article on the Electoral College. I have to admit that I am not the greatest when it comes to how it all works, however I do know that as citizens we have an indirect vote when it comes to the presidential election. I know that the popular vote is all of the individual votes that are cast by all citizens who actually go out and vote. I also know that the final vote comes down to the electoral votes that are cast. I know I learned in a high school class that even if the majority of people in a state vote for one candidate that the electoral delegates could vote the opposite of what the people wanted. Of course, this rarely happens because if they go against the wishes of the people it could be detrimental for their political career. The people (voters) of that state could get upset and not re-elect the electoral representatives because they have shown that they don’t stand by the wishes of the citizens. As a new voter I don’t feel I am educated enough on the process to say whether I agree or disagree with the Electoral College, however it seems to have worked for all of the years, so I am not sure what changes would need to be made. I don’t necessarily agree with the popular vote working either because large populated states like California and New York would have a huge voice in the election, but I don’t feel those two state represent the majority of the nation. I do think it is important that students are educated early on about the importance of voting. I think the more educated students are the more they will participate and actually vote when they turn 18. There are many ways teachers can incorporate the voting process into their Social Studies lessons. Teachers could even vote for class presidents and/or other types of elections. They could also hold debates about the different candidates running for president and hold mock elections. In the end we all should take a more active role in voting since it is our right and responsibility to participate in civic affairs.

  7. The Electoral College is a system that has worked for many years now, but more recently in the news now there has been question on if this should be the way to continue with electing the president. I find the Electoral College both useful and un-useful, for one the way that is set up is for those in power to use their states votes to help decide what they should vote but they don’t have to and i think that they should because that is the representatives are supposed to do, vote for what their state wants but in the governments defense the representatives may know more politically and economically more than those who voted in their states. So the representatives may know more of what is best for the country than what the average person may know.

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