What is the Electoral College?

A Note from the Professor: This is my 9th year (8th time) teaching in the First Year Experience Program at Colorado College. In this most recent course, Mariolivia “MJ” Jimenez (’24) and Najma Abdi (’24) wrote their group expository essay on the electoral college, and wrote it for a young audience. So, after my daughter recently completed a mock ballot at school and asked if we could talk about it, I remembered MJ’s and Najma’s essay and sent it to her. She told me she really enjoyed reading it, appreciated it was written for someone her age (she really liked the part about the “homies”), and learned a lot. Of course, I wrote MJ and Najma letting them know, and they couldn’t have been proud. Then, when a friend asked if she could read the essay and share it with her high school student, I asked if I could publish here, and they agreed. Enjoy.

A Note from the Authors: Please click the links to read definitions in our glossary or read sources we cited. For your convenience, all links will open in a new tab. Thank you for reading.

Mariolivia “MJ” Jimenez and Najma Abdi
CC106 Knowledge, Identity, and Power
Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
September 16, 2020

Hillary Rodham Clinton

“What? How is this possible! Hilary Clinton won the popular vote, so how did Donald Trump win?” If this was your reaction while watching the 2016 presidential election, we do not blame you. It was ours, too. Even though people have recently been expressing their opinions about the electoral college because of 2016, this is not the first time this has happened, and it probably will not be the last. In fact, most of us turn 18 and are ready to vote by our senior year; yet, we have no clue how the electoral college works! So, how about we learn about this together? Let us start from the beginning.

Here is how it all went down: One morning, our so-called “founding fathers” got dressed and wore their prettiest wigs to join their homies for the constitutional convention. The convention took place in Philadelphia in 1787. One of the topics they discussed was “how to go about electing a president of this new United States.” Some of the proposals they came up with included the Virginia Plan, which stated members of Congress should elect the president. This was immediately rejected, because the Virginia Plan was giving larger states an advantage due to their populations. Then came the New Jersey Plan, which claimed regardless of population, states should only have one vote, but this plan was also rejected because opponents claimed one vote would not be enough to represent the people. So, they decided to combine the elements of the New Jersey and Virginia plans, which they called the Connecticut Compromise. Through this compromise, the electoral college was approved as part of the Twelfth Amendment.

President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton circa 1795 (Photo Credit: Three Lions and Getty Images)

The newly established electoral college was in effect by the 1804 election, but due to its complications, the founding fathers had to ratify it. For instance, when the 1804 election took place, Republican electors had no formal way to choose Thomas Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President. This created confusion that some politicians tried to exploit by earning two votes instead of one. With all the work it took to ratify the electoral college, you might be wondering, “Why do we even need this?” Well, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote a federalist paper after the electoral college was amended. In this paper, they claimed “the electors would come from the people and that the election would take place among all of the states.’’ They claimed the system was infallible, because to them, the electoral college would allow smaller states to have as much impact on the election as the bigger states. Therefore, the electoral college was ratified and is now part of the current election system.

Now that you have some background, let’s discuss the current system. The electoral college has 538 votes in total, 435 of those votes from the U.S. House of Representatives. The number of House votes varies based on each state’s population. For instance, states like California have 53 representative votes whereas Wyoming has only 1. Of the remaining 103 votes, 100 come from the U.S. Senate, and every state has two senators. The last 3 are from the District of Columbia. These numbers might seem useless, but you need them to understand our election system.

When it comes to electoral college votes, some states favor one party over the other. Even though there are more than two political parties in the elections, we will focus on the two major ones: Democrats and Republicans. Some states vote Republican almost all the time and other states vote Democrat. For instance, Colorado had been a red state up until Obama’s second term. This change in political parties established Colorado as a swing state. So, before the election, the Democratic presidential candidate will try and campaign hard in the “red states” for votes, and the Republican candidate in the “blue states.” Ideally, the Representatives and Senators in the electoral college will cast their votes for President in a way that represents the popular vote in their states. So, if most people in Ohio vote for the Democrat, theoretically the Representative and Senators in Ohio would, too. However, that is not always the case.

This, in part, explains opposition to the electoral college. Also, as we pointed out earlier, what happened in 2016 wasn’t exactly new. People were also confused, and some very upset, when George Bush was elected President in 2000, because he won the electoral college 271 to 266, while Al Gore ended up getting 500,000 more popular votes. The confusion is probably because people are not aware of the influence of the electoral college due to its normalcy as an institution. Still, state lawmakers like Christopher Pearson, a member of the Vermont Senate, is against the electoral college, because the “winner-take-all” approach “ignores the will of too many voters.” Currently, 48 states adhere to the winner-take-all law. Through this, 70% of American voters are “ignored,” while attention is put onto 5 to 12 swing states. In 2016, for example, “two-thirds of the general election campaign (spending and events) took place in only six states; 94% was centered in just 12 states.” Through this method, five U.S. presidencies have resulted in the “second-place” candidate’s victory, second-place at least regarding the popular vote. This, critics argue, creates an unequal advantage of the electoral college over the popular vote of the people, even according to the constitution, the electoral college was meant to evenly distribute the voting power of states.  

On the contrary, many are in favor of the electoral college, as it “keeps states in charge of our elections.” Trent England, a distinguished fellow at the Oklahoma Council Affairs, claims the “founding fathers” feared that the bigger states would dominate presidential politics. Through this two-step process, people claim the electoral college prevents one region from controlling the white house. They claim the popular vote would rely on each state to certify a national vote total, which, in turn, would expect states to trust every other state’s elections. In theory, the electoral college does not allow for the bigger states to dominate, forcing presidential candidates to campaign in smaller states, too. Due to the electoral college being a two-check system, England and Pearson argue this would also lessen the “likelihood for recounts or demands for runoff election.” They say the electoral college would lessen the possibility for error and that it also “safeguards against uniformed or uneducated voters.” Thus, those in support of the electoral college claim it helps us reduce error and give opportunity to all states.

After years of being unfamiliar with the electoral college, now you understand what it is and its role in the current election system. With this new understanding, maybe now it will not come as a shock to you when a president ends up winning the election despite having a lower number of the popular vote than their opponent. How does this information challenge your current views on our election system? Are you for or against the electoral college? 

“Remember, I did win by more than 3 million votes than my opponent!”
Hillary Clinton (after the 2016 presidential election)


In order of appearance in the essay.

Twelfth Amendment: Claims each elector must cast distinct votes for president and vice president, instead of two votes for president.

Ratify: To confirm by expressing consent, approval, or formal sanction.

Red State: A U.S. state that predominantly votes for or supports the Republican Party.

Swing State: A U.S. state in which the two major political parties (Democrats and Republicans) have similar levels of support among voters. Viewed as important in determining the overall result of a presidential election.

Blue State: A U.S. state that predominantly votes for or supports the Democratic Party.

Two-Check System: Makes sure power is balanced between systems. Common to the “check and balances” practiced in government.

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