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

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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


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

11 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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