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 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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