What Is the Electoral College and What Does It Do?

The November 3, 2020, presidential election will soon be here. The candidate with the most popular votes will be the winner and be inaugurated as president in January 2021, right? Not necessarily! The Electoral College must be considered—but what exactly is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College was established by the United States Constitution and is comprised of 538 members in total from all of the states across the Country. Each state has the same number of electors as it has members of Congress. So how does the Electoral College function and what is its purpose?

Each time voters go to the polls to elect the president of the United States, they are not really voting for a presidential candidate, but rather are voting for ‘electors’ each of whom pledges to vote for a particular candidate when the Electoral College in their state convenes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. Following this vote, the report of the state electors across the country is prepared and incorporated into a certificate of vote and presented to Congress on January 6 following the election. A candidate must receive 270 electoral votes to be elected. If no candidate receives 270 votes, the election is then decided by the United States House of Representatives with each state having one vote. This situation has happened two times in the history of the Electoral College.
Excepting Maine and Nebraska, the votes cast in each state go to one candidate. So how is that candidate chosen? The votes are not prorated based upon the percentage of votes earned by each presidential candidate. All of the electoral votes of a state go to the candidate who won the popular vote in that state. Consequently, it is possible for a candidate to earn the most popular votes nationwide but still not be elected as president.

When the founding fathers of our country were working on the United States Constitution, they wanted to develop a system that gave each state an equal voice but did not create a monarchy. While at that time the state legislatures elected their own governors, the Constitutional Convention delegates did not favor having Congress elect the president. They were instead seeking a method that did not promote favoritism or create a system of royalty. The potential for control by the large states was also a concern.

While some delegates favored a direct election by all voters of the states, others were concerned the voters would not be well informed about the candidates. Of course, communication with and among the public then was much different than now. The founding fathers were also trying to avoid election re-counts or run-offs. They were worried large states would control the election which could result in not giving everyone an equal voice. The purpose of the Electoral College was to combat tyranny and support the federalism doctrine—both outcomes believed to be good alternatives and a compromise to allowing Congress to elect the president or for a popular vote to decide the outcome.

As a result of the Electoral College method, battleground states have developed. These are states with a large number of electoral votes. Consequently, candidates focus on these states, as winning their votes will help ensure one’s election as president. Focusing on states with a large number of electoral votes and spending less time campaigning in or ignoring smaller states with only a few electoral votes has been one of the major criticisms of the Electoral College method and its influence. Only 20 percent of voters nationwide live in battleground states. Therefore, 80 percent of voters are being ignored or not taken seriously by the presidential candidates. Often the candidates do not even visit these states or only travel there on a limited basis. If the president were elected by popular vote, a candidate would need to campaign in every state, not just those with a high number of electoral college votes.  

Another observation regarding “battleground states” is that the percentage of voters who go to the polls in these states is higher than those voters in non battleground states. One theory is that more people would vote if the president were elected by a purely a popular vote, without the use of the Electoral College. Proponents of this theory argue that its adoption as a means for voting would result in the election of a president by a truly nationwide poplar vote. Some of these same individuals also argue that “battleground states” get more attention from federal programs and funding and thus have an unfair advantage over other states.
Are battleground states receiving too much attention from the presidential candidates? Does the current communication system allow for well-informed voters? Has the time come to revisit and perhaps even revise the Electoral College system developed by our founding fathers? What do YOU think?

If you do have a view about whether or not the Electoral College is serving a meaningful purpose in our national elections, we suggest that you recommend the scheduling of a discussion or debate about the topic in your classroom—whether you are a student in that classroom or the teacher. If you do further research beyond this piece about that system, you will find it is actually a hot topic across the country as residents/voters struggle with finding the best way for voters to truly have a voice in the election of the president.

Member Comments (1)

Thanks Nancy for making that so clear and understanable!

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June 2020Volume 11Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)