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

10 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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