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.

Undocumented Teens Targeted by Trump’s Abortion Agenda

By Eden Lumerman


In September 2017, an undocumented teen immigrant from Central America who was held in a federally contracted shelter in Texas, discovered she was pregnant. She decided to get an abortion, secured a permission from a Texas judge, and raised the funds for the procedure. However, federal officials intervened and would not allow her to leave the federal “shelter” to the abortion clinic. Instead, she was sent to receive pro-life counseling. Jane Doe (her name in the legal papers) is one of many undocumented minors who have been subjected to the attempts of the Trump administration to make abortion unattainable for undocumented teens. According to VICE News, since October 2017 “four teens have accused the administration of blocking them from getting abortions while they were in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement” (Sherman, 2018). In an unprecedented manner of state intervention in the lives, privacy, and bodily integrity of undocumented immigrants, the ORR has both attempted to prevent the teens from starting an abortion process within a safe time-frame, and attempted to reverse a medication abortion by delaying the pregnant teens from taking their second pill of the procedure. The ORR even suggested a new experimental method of reversing abortion: injecting the pregnant woman with the hormone Progesterone. Scott Lloyd, the director of ORR and a staunch anti-abortion activist, has described abortion as “violence that has the ultimate destruction of another human being as its goal.”

This case raises a few important questions: Since when does the US government care about the unborn children of undocumented immigrants? Why target undocumented minors? Why does the government suggest experimenting dubious medical procedures on the bodies of Brown, poor, underage pregnant women? This new policy issued by the ORR is more than Lloyd’s personal campaign against abortion. It has everything to do with the state’s systematic regard of poor Brown women as not entitled to authority over their bodies and their lives.

In “Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality, and the Right of Privacy,” Dorothy E. Roberts argues that the “prosecutions of drug-addicted mothers infringe on… the right to individual choice in reproductive decision making… the prosecutions infringe on choice by imposing an invidious government standard for the entitlement to procreate” (172-3). Like the prosecution of drug-addicted mothers, the forceful imposition of undocumented teens to carry their pregnancies to term is a violation of their right to individual choice. Roberts continues, “Such imposition of a government standard for childbearing is one way society denies the humanity of those who are different” (173). Indeed, by preventing Jane Doe from obtaining an abortion, the state denies her humanity and claims authority over her body.

Furthermore, the intersection of race, gender, citizenship, nationality, and socio-economic status is at the core of this event. The undocumented teens were an “easy target” for the state: they are already under constant surveillance in federal custody, they are not citizens, and probably not familiar with their constitutional rights. In “An Open Letter to Pierre Schlag,” Maria Grahn-Farley writes, “Pierre talks about the violence of the law but he does not talk about those whom the violence of the law serves or those whom the violence of the law violates” (141). This case illustrates clearly the way in which (in this case state policy), commits violence that serves those in power, and violates those who are least powerful in society. Thus, the pregnant undocumented teens are the “martyrs” of the law and social order; the sacrifice of their freedom of choice and right to privacy is the price American society pays in the name of social order (Grahn-Farley,143). Since they are not citizens, this sacrifice is coherent with the legal regime that does not perceive non-citizens (especially Brown and poor people) as entitled to the same human rights as those who are citizens.

Moreover, Grahn-Farley’s discussion of the “normative language of rights” is instructive in understanding the state’s disregard of the teens’ individual choice in reproductive decision making. She writes, “To understand a right is already to have understood a lack. To connect the self to a right is also to connect the self to a lack. To understand the self as incomplete, as not yet done, as missing, is to understand one’s rights” (145-6). The right of the teens to have an abortion is thus a lack; a lack of citizenship, a lack of whiteness, a lack of social status, a lack of language, a lack of ability to have authority over their bodies without filing a class action suit with the help of the ACLU.

Jane Doe and the other three teens who accused the Trump administration of blocking them from obtaining an abortion won their case with the help of the ACLU, and eventually were able to have an abortion. However, more questions remain unanswered: how many other pregnant undocumented minors are still subjected and will be subjected to the bullying of the Trump administration? Until when will government officials continue to assert their authority and dominance in the expense of poor women of color? When will society cease to deny the humanity of those who are “different?”

Denying Science, Denying Rights

By Savanah McDaniel

Over the last few months, the Trump Administration has blatantly violated women’s right to healthcare. In April, President Trump signed an executive order cutting government funding for Planned Parenthood. Last month, the Administration reduced healthcare access for women by rolling back an ACA mandate that required employers to cover birth control costs. Now women’s access to birth control depends on their employer’s moral or religious stance, while clinics that provide contraceptive assistance have been defunded.

Under attack by religious conservatives, women’s access to healthcare relies increasingly on science for support. Studies across disciplines have concluded that access to birth control improves the health of women and their children, and allows women to obtain higher paying jobs[1]. Even with bodies of research supporting women’s access to birth control, there is still a movement to remove this necessity. Political discourse often ignores the data, presenting birth control as a controversial, moral issue. Though if the decision to cover birth control was a strictly ethical one, politicians and the religious right would stop denying science and support contraception. Sadly, moralistic arguments do exist- even in medicine.

Earlier this month, Marguerite Duane, M.D. published an article titled “Stop Denying Science. Birth Control Isn’t Necessary for Women’s Health.” In her article Dr. Duane uses personal anecdotes, biased with her moral-political convictions, in lieu of scientific evidence to support the Trump Administration’s roll back. Since Dr. Duane is using her position as a medical expert to support recent political rhetoric that limits women’s healthcare options, I find it important to deconstruct her argument using data from peer-reviewed articles, widely accepted by research-backed organizations and medical associations[2].

“birth control is not the only, or even best, way to treat the reproductive issues women experience.”

Here, Dr. Duane introduces the adverse side-effects of birth control she experienced, to support her claim that birth control is not necessary to women’s health. I agree that the pill or other hormone-based contraceptives are not the only way to treat issues like menstrual irregularity and pain, however, these treatments are effective for many women. In fact, 58% of women in the US who take the pill do so for non-contraceptive reasons[3]. Hormonal birth control- like any medication- can produce adverse side-effects. Unless the medication is causing more harm than benefit, side effects should not necessitate market removal. A logical solution to this issue would be to promote better research. More research on women’s reproductive health could lead to birth control and other treatment methods that do not have as many side-effects.

“While it can help prevent pregnancy and then only some of the time, it does so by suppressing the normal function of a woman’s reproductive system” [italics added]

Contrary to the first part of this statement, the most common contraceptive methods (male condoms, IUDs, the implant, and the pill) are above 90%[4] effective at preventing pregnancy[5]. Whereas the family planning, or “charting”, methods Duane advocates for are only 76% effective[6]. Though some of these more effective methods come with side-effects, as Dr. Duane points out in her article, most women consider effectiveness a top priority when considering contraceptive options[7]. Among women in the US who currently use contraception (which is 62% of 15- 44 year olds) the most common contraceptive methods are the pill, male condoms, IUDs, Implant, and female sterilization[8]. Even though fertility-based “charting” methods do not produce side-effects, they are less effective and therefore less popular among women.

Like her claim to the effectiveness of birth control, the second part of this statement is also arguable. By stating that birth control suppresses the normal function of a woman’s reproductive system, we can infer that Dr. Duane also means natural– or unimpeded by medical treatment. My inference here is supported by her statement that birth control should not be used to treat noncontraceptive issues like cramps because it “suppresses” a woman’s fertility[9]. There are many reasons why women take hormone-based contraceptives, including regulating their period. Should women with an irregular, or a naturally suppressed menstrual cycle, not take the pill? By this logic any chronic disorder, which occurs naturally -like the author’s asthma- should not be treated because it disrupts the body’s “normal function”. Furthermore, there are hormonal disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) where birth control is a major treatment method. Whether it be an inhaler or birth control, medical interventions are necessary because bodies can disfunction, naturally. A person with asthma needs access to an inhaler, just as someone with PCOS needs access to birth control.

“Why do we ‘fight for birth control’ but not drugs that allow people to breathe?”

First, this is not an issue of insurance either covering birth control or other medications; removing birth control coverage does not preclude taking access away from other medications. Any medication that treats issues which impede a person’s life should be accessible. Private insurance companies are not struggling; there is funding to cover birth control as well as other necessary medications. Additionally, comparing access to asthma medication to that of birth control is like saying, in the words of Irina Dunn, “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”: the two do not relate. 1 in 12 people in the US suffer from asthma[10] whereas 99% of women will access birth control at some point in their lives[11]. Not only does the funding of birth control not affect access to asthma medication, removing access to birth control will directly affect more people than there are asthmatics.

Second, we (feminists, women’s rights activists, concerned human beings) fight for birth control because all women deserve to lead healthy lives, unimpeded by unplanned pregnancy and reproductive issues. Through protests, collaboration, and lobbying we have and will continue to defend access to this necessity. The argument that Dr. Duane presents uses personal anecdotes, masquerading as scientific evidence, to defend the Trump Administration’s repeal of the ACA mandate. In supporting a company’s decision to deny coverage of birth control for moral or religious reasons, she ignores research that shows birth control increases a woman’s quality of life by opening up employment opportunities, decreasing unplanned pregnancies, and treating painful reproductive disorders.

It is irresponsible for Dr. Duane to use her medical authority to support an opinion- not science- that threatens women’s rights. In advocating to defund birth control coverage, and rejecting medical literature that supports birth control access, Dr. Duane invalidates her medical expertise. Unsurprisingly, though her argument contradicts the data, it does align with her pro-life views and fertility-oriented organization. Duane co-founded the Fertility Appreciation Collaborative to Teach the Science (FACTS), which values women for their reproductive capacity, erasing the complexity of women’s lifestyle choices and contributions outside of child rearing. Her conservative, pseudo-scientific argument threatens to reduce women to reproductive vessels, while supporting the strategic removal of women’s rights through Trump’s policies. These political moves are unacceptable, blatant, sexist rhetoric that endanger women’s health and humanity. Through her writing and political organizing, Duane is not only complicit, she is actively supporting the dehumanization of women. We must not allow anyone, especially those who masquerade as public servants, to limit our contributions to society, to reduce our value to our bodies- nay our wombs. So yes, in the words of (Dr.) Marguerite Duane, “stop denying science”.

Editor’s Note: Many people who use and depend on birth control do not identify as “women,” and their access to healthcare is arguably even more threatened by the Trump administration’s agenda. Despite its terminology, this article is not intended to essentialize “women’s health” into an exclusive category.


[1] Adam Sonfield, et al. “The Social and Economic Benefits of Women’s Ability to Determine Whether and When to Have Children,” (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2013), 14-18, <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/&gt;.

[2] All data was collected from articles published in peer-reviewed journals or by organizations using data published by similar sources such as the Center for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health.

[3] Rachel K. Jones. “Beyond Birth Control: The Overlooked Benefits Of Oral Contraceptive Pills,” (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2011).

[4] The pill and male condoms are 99% and 98% effective with perfect use, 91% and 82% with typical use.

[5] Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Effectiveness of Family Planning Methods,” (2011), <https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/unintendedpregnancy/pdf/contraceptive_methods_508.pdf&gt;

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cassondra Marshall, et al. “Young Women’s Contraceptive Decision Making: Do Preferences for Contraceptive Attributes Align with Method Choice?” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 48, no. 3 (2016): 119-127.

[8] Kimberly Daniels, et al. “Current Contraceptive Status Among Women Aged 15–44: United States, 2011–2013,” National Center for Health Statistics, no. 173, (2014).

[9] Fertility Appreciation Collaborative to Teach the Science. “About FACTS: Statement of Principles,” (2017), <http://www.factsaboutfertility.org/about/&gt;.

[10] Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Asthma in the US,” (2011), <https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/asthma/index.html&gt;.

[11] Adam Sonfield, et al. “The Social and Economic Benefits of Women’s Ability To Determine Whether and When to Have Children,” (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2013), 3, <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/&gt;.

While Things Are Stirring

While Things Are Stirring (Cover)

Created by Dorsa Djalilzadeh (Editor), Niyat Ogbazghi (Journalist), Mariel Wilson (Journalist), and Corrina Leatherwood (Graphic Designer) in Block 6 2017

“At times activist work can be daunting but that is why we are here. This publication exists as a guide, a way for learning the theories and the on-the-ground tactics for acknowledging and resisting oppression and engaging in conscious and intentional activism and feminism. Whether it be by protesting with a sign or tweeting to people across the world, ultimately, it is this work that must continue and spread to effect change. As Sojourner Truth so aptly said, ‘I am for keeping things going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again’ (92). For some people, existence itself is resistance. For them, that is enough. But some of us can do even more and it is our responsibility to resist for them. Moving is resistance, even the subtlest raising of an arm. Reader, do not go still. Ask for help. Do not hesitate. Keep things stirring.”
—Dorsa Djalilzadeh, Editor

Click here to read While Things Are Stirring!

While Things Are Stirring (ToC)