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 understand what the electoral college is for, but to me it seems kind of pointless to have. If the citizens of the U.S. are voting for a president, but then the electoral college votes and the most votes from that wins, then what is the point of the citizens voting. In my opinion, it seems like the government allows us to vote so we have an option of who becomes president, but really we have no say because the electoral college makes the final vote and decision.

    • Great point Melissa Vollhardt. This is why many people say that our vote does not count. But what we have to understand is, in a representative democracy we elect individuals to represent us.

  2. I personally never understood why we need the electoral college. I believed that when I turned 18 my vote was counted, and there were no other factors. It’s interesting how the difference between direct democracy and representative democracy. I wish there was more of an understanding throughout the nation. This article helps reassure me the to be educated about the issues, topics, and politicians in today’s society.

  3. I have always been intrigued by the electoral college. Especially after the 2016 election when Clinton won the popular vote but Trump was elected president. I don’t like the fact that our electors do not have to use their votes for the states popular vote. This makes me feel like my vote is not being taken into consideration. While I hope that electors do what the people of the state are saying, it isn’t guaranteed which is unsettling. This article gave me a little more info which helped me understand the electoral college better!

  4. While I believe that the electoral college is important, I think that is is run incorrectly. I understand the foundation of the electoral college as it was born out of a time of fear from the founding fathers, who had just come from the oppressive British government. They were fearful that this would happen to them as well. Furthermore, the continued existence of the electoral college in theory is not bad. History has shown us again again that charismatic and radical leaders can and will take over a country, we need a safeguard agents it. Where I run into issues with the electoral college is that most states are winner takes all. For true representation of the American as the electoral college should be in almost all cases, a true representation of the American people would be proportionate of electoral college votes.

  5. I understand what electors are in each state, yet the electoral college kind of confuses me. I do not understand why we may need it today, being that it may have been more useful for back in the day it seems. Yet, I do understand where you talk about how the founding fathers were afraid of the President to become more of a tyrant, which makes more sense to me. I would hope most people in our country would not want a tyranny as a government for the United States. Giving someone too much power can only result in a negative way, but that is just my opinion.

  6. I understand the purpose of the electoral college, and I think it is necessary. Without the electoral college, states with larger populations would be essentially running the country with their votes. While this is representing the popular vote based on each individual person, I do not believe that it is necessarily representing the whole country. A state such as California has different environments, perspectives, values, etc. than a state such as Kentucky. If the electoral college was removed, huge population states such as California would have a much greater say than smaller population states such as Kentucky. This would thus not accurately represent America as a whole. I do still think that with an electoral college, each individual vote counts. Each person’s vote counts to choose the representatives in the electoral college. These representatives then determine who becomes president. The individual vote still counts! To me it reminds me of each state electing representatives for the house or senate. Each state elects representatives to then make decisions for the nation. Each person does not vote on every single national issue that comes up; people are elected to do that. While the electoral college can seem pointless and confusing at first, I do believe that looking deeper into it, a person can see the necessity of it. I think this is an important thing to teach students about, so they understand it when it comes to their time to vote.

  7. It’s really interesting to look at the electoral college. I feel like its something not talked about enough. I didn’t even know about the electoral votes until 2016 and Trump won the electoral votes and Hilary won the popular vote. I didn’t realize that if people didn’t vote, then someone doesn’t vote, then someone who was elected votes. I think more people should know that. Especially people who are just registering to vote, or people who can just now vote for the first time. While at first glance it almost appears like the popular vote doesn’t matter, but they both do.

  8. From a purist constitutional point of view, it seems the twelfth amendment is there to protect the American people. Considering the war it took to gain freedom from the British, this would have been a prudent move, and sensical for the population of that time. However, I agree with other’s comments here. This seems a pointless and unfair check and balance in the current climate. Furthermore, we find representatives stay in their state government long past their expiration date..thus becoming an irrelevant vote for the actual constituent’s wishes. I feel a great anxiety about the electoral college votes for the 2020 election, as they may be free to make another dismal mistake without punity.

  9. My initial thoughts while reading, was that I did not understand the point of citizens even voting if their vote doesn’t “actually count”. Towards the end, after reading columnist Marc Schulman’s two main reasons, I understood that the electoral college is to prevent corruptions within the election. In the perspective of those two main reasons, it’s easier to see the importance in the electoral college.

  10. In all honesty, I never really paid much attention to politics let alone the electoral college. So that being said I really didn’t know much about it until reading this. The fact that in some states Electors are REQUIRED to vote towards the popular vote is just crazy. I really don’t see how that’s fair in an election. After learning more about it, I don’t see why we even have it. It almost makes the peoples votes there “just because”. It just seems like the electoral college “calls the shots” when it comes to the elections votes and who wins.

  11. I like simplicity. This type of democracy is not a simple one, and because of how the laws vary state-to-state further adds to the complexity of the electoral process in the United States. Despite saying that I believe that electoral college is a very necessary system put in place which balances population and land mass. Direct democracy is something even Plato was against in the fourth century BC because of its ability to be manipulated. With many top democrats wanting to abolish the Electoral College is startling because I believe that history supports the idea buffers in place when electing leaders are necessary.

  12. I really appreciate that you connected lesson plans and resources to this informational passage. I had no idea what an electoral college was or why we needed it, so I genuinely learned something from reading this article which is exciting! After reading this, though, I am torn as to how I feel about the electoral college. I can understand why it was created, but is it still necessary today? I just don’t understand how these “elite” individuals are qualified to speak for the whole of America. I am interested to see how representative these individuals are of the population. I have a feeling it is primarily comprised of middle-aged white men.

  13. I honestly never understood the electoral college and this article gives me a better understanding. It can be easy to see why at the beginning of our government the founding fathers would find it a necessity to have encase of another tyrant like king that they had just been under. But now it’s a bit scary to think that our votes as citizens may not be as important as we would like to believe. It is something of a give and take when being in a representative government, which is better than having no say whatsoever under a dictator.

  14. This article was a rich resource that helped me to better understand what exactly the electoral college is and its purpose. I had honestly forgotten exactly how it functioned. From this article, I believe that the electoral college is a beneficial system for the greater good of America. I appreciate that our founding fathers enacted this system of a representative democracy that is a preventative measure against the masses being coerced by one leader/tyrant. I found it very interesting that there are currently only 5 total times where the President won the electoral vote but not the popular vote. This makes me wonder if the electoral college is truly making the best decision, or if they aren’t properly representing the masses.

  15. I have always heard about the electoral college, but never really understood what exactly it means. I’m not really into politics but after reading this article I’m intrigued in the whole voting process. After reading, I have come to the question of, why is the electoral college more important than the citizens? It seems as if the government wants to make the people feel as if they are a part of making big decisions for the country, but in reality their votes don’t really matter. I find it to be very appalling to know that my vote and opinion don’t matter when it comes to electing a president and vice president. It’s crazy to me that the citizens have no say in the country decisions, so what’s the reason for the big push to have people vote in the presidential election?!

  16. I think that it is very important to teach about what the electoral college is and the reasoning behind using it. Up until the most recent election I hadn’t understood what the electoral college was and how it worked. I assumed that it was still based on the popular votes for the states. This article was very informative and helpful in explaining how it works. I also think that although the electoral college was put into place for specific reasons, I think that it is outdated. I don’t think that the representatives in the electoral college should be able to vote for whoever they want for the whole state and having the option to go against what the majority of their stated voted for, it should be based on the popular vote.

  17. I think that teaching about the electoral college is very important because many adults, including myself, were never given an explanation. I think the lack of understanding plays a major part in the controversy surrounding whether or not the electoral college is fair. It is important to know how our voting system works and how our individual voices are heard. I think that the linked lesson plans and teaching resources are very helpful.

  18. Reading this article gave me a better understanding of what the electoral is and helps me as a voter understand the voting process better. I do see the positives and negatives about it from what was talked about. It can prevent bigger states like California or Texas from having an unfair advantage but also is it properly representing the country as a whole? These are just two of the many things to consider when looking at the electoral college.

  19. This article helped to give me a better understanding of what the electoral college is, and why it is necessary. And as a future educator it is important for me to know what this is in order to portray it to my students. From this article, I have learned that the electoral college is a beneficial system for the greater good of America. Our founding fathers enacted this system of a representative democracy that is a preventative measure against the country being swayed or forced into a decision by the leader. This makes me wonder if the electoral college is truly making the best decision, or if they aren’t properly representing the country as a whole.

  20. I have never really understood why we need the electoral college or what the electoral college actually is. I always thought that when I turned 18 my vote was all that counted when it came to elections, and there were no other factors. After reading this article I have a better understanding of what the electoral college is. I am now left with the question of why is the electoral college more important than our own vote? I feel like as citizens our votes should mean more than they are. I also feel like there is no point to voting if our vote really does not mean much.

  21. This was honestly pretty interesting and I had no idea how it worked. From what I read there is 53 people who vote based upon the popular vote, they do not have to vote for the popular vote candidate but if they don’t they basically don’t get elected again. It seems weird to me that we don’t just have the people of the country vote and whoever that is wins. It seems like an extra, unnecessary step to the voting. The article was good.

  22. This is such a hot button item. I’ve heard some say some pretty wild things that I’m not comfortable mentioning here. Nonetheless, if not for the Electoral College, 9 states could, reasonably decide the President without consideration from the rest. The belief systems held by those in smaller states could be put into jeopardy via popular decisions. The dangers of this can be seen in history with the forcing of Native Americans from their land in Florida, under Andrew Jackson (who, strangely enough, wanted to eliminate the Electoral College). This was a, generally, popular idea, at the time, on both sides of the aisle. Majority rule only serves to take the screws to the little guy. Nobody wants to go unheard. The Electoral College, though imperfect, gives every state a more even playing field on the national stage.

  23. I think the electoral college is very important. States that have small populations will basically have no say in the presidential election which isn’t fair. The electoral college gives them a voice also. I think that this topic needs to be better taught in school because I have seen multiple comments from people who have never understood how it works and because they don’t understand it, they would just rather not have it. People are always going to argue whether or not we should use it, but they at least should have a basic understanding before giving their opinion.

  24. At a glance, the Electoral College seems archaic and outdated by today’s standards. However, it plays a very significant role in our election process, and I believe that despite its drawbacks, it is necessary for our country to have this system. Without the Electoral College, the states with the largest populations (California, New York, Texas, etc) would be overwhelmingly dominant over the smaller states. With the Electoral College in place, smaller states like Wyoming and West Virginia get a much larger amount of representation on the national scale. While this system arguably devalues the power of your individual vote, it allows for an equal playing field between all of the states, even if the larger states still have far more electors than the smaller ones.

    I believe that the Electoral College needs to be better explained to students – in many cases, 18 year-olds vote for the first time without even understanding how the system works. However, it should also be explained how important it is to vote on election day – even if the Electoral College makes your vote less important, you should still absolutely express your opinion in the voting booth, since its one of the few instances where you can directly affect who’s representing our country.

  25. I personally am not, and never have been, a huge fan of the electoral college. A lot of people idolize the founding fathers, which is understandable, they did a lot for our country. However, most of them did not believe that the “uneducated” public could be trusted with voting for places of power. This is why we are a representative democracy as opposed to a straight democracy. This still gives us the illusion of freedom, however we have very little say in voting. As stated in the article, the electors do not have to cast their vote based on the popular vote of their state. This does happen. Most states electors have their candidates decided before the public cast their votes. I am not saying that you shouldn’t vote. Everyone should vote. This makes the injustice harder to dismiss, to ignore. If electors consistently vote against the public actions will have to be taken eventually, and it will bring this matter a lot of people are not aware of more into the public eye.

  26. The electoral college is important for students to know about. Each state, rather than the individual voter has a big role in elections such as presidential. Many people (especially young) do not vote and we are left with many complaints from people on the laws and regulations set in place. If they were to vote in what seemed to be the smaller elections such as mid-term elections than they may see a significant difference in our society. Students also need to learn about the difference of regular states and swing states in terms of politics.

  27. I’ll be honest and say that I, too, was one of those people who once believed that the electoral college was something that was unnecessary in an election. However, growing older, I realize the need for such. Having a dominant population completely control the outcome of an election is something that could be devastatingly horrific for the country. It can be seen in history that people can have the wool pulled over their eyes by those who wanted the power. Manipulation of the masses was one of the biggest fears of the founding fathers and I think we can see that it can happen, even in today’s time. When the citizens manipulated, those in the electoral college can and should see through the manipulation, choosing one who is best suited, despite the popular vote.

  28. I understand the purpose of the electoral college to a degree in today’s society. It does not allow the masses to swayed and creates a buffer of some sort, but we need to recognize that the founding fathers’ fears do not exactly match the problems of today. The founding fathers’ opinions need to be taken with a grain of salt and applied to today’s issues and not taken without question. Essentially, the popular vote decides very little and the electors have an enormous about of power. I believe the system should be changed to at least consider the popular vote, but I realize how difficult this change would be. Either way, the old ways need to be questioned as times change and it may be necessary to think for ourselves as a nation rather than relying completely on the thoughts of our founding fathers.

  29. I did not know about an Electoral College until this most recent election, when Donald Trump won and I thought it was weird because I didn’t think he won by the votes of the people. This article really puts things in perspective of how things work and why. I find it extra fascinating that besides this most recent election, the occurrence of the electoral college voting against the most popular candidate has only happened 4 other times! I feel like the initial reasoning behind the electoral college is kind of a moot point in this day and age; with media at everyone’s fingertips, I kind of pessimistically believe that every candidate can be considered a “tyrant” and has the power to influence and manipulate the masses to vote in their favor. Plus, the Electoral College is witness to the same propaganda as the general population. However, the second reasoning for the electoral college (that it strengthens the power of less populated states) makes sense for keeping it around. However, it probably feels like a bunch of bologna to anyone who votes for a candidate that isn’t aligned with their state’s majority party.

  30. Electoral College has always been something that frustrates me. If we are able to see how many votes each candidate received why do we still need Electoral College. For example in the 2016 election, if Hilary Clinton got more popular votes and Donald Trump only won the electoral vote… what’s the point? I just believe if we are able to calculate the popular vote, then is there a point in electoral college? I understand that the smaller populated states may have wanted to feel more powerful, but in this day and age I believe it should be based off of popular vote. The person who has more votes should be President, not the person who has the most electoral votes.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

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