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.

“A Woman’s Place is in the White House!”

By Jess Keniston

clintonThe moment one opens a computer or switches on the TV, they are bombarded by the face of Hillary Clinton. Many campaigns in Clinton’s favor scream, “A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE WHITE HOUSE,” implying that in nominating a female president, America has emerged victorious in the battle for women’s rights. Clinton’s feminism, as analyzed through a liberal feminist framework, is effective because she subverts male domination and works for women’s rights. However, many do not agree with her feminist standing.

On Clinton’s official campaign website, a quote emblazons the top of a page titled “Women’s rights and opportunity.” It reads: “I am a proud lifelong fighter for women’s issues, because I firmly believe what’s good for women is good for America.” In claiming this, Hillary implies that electing her as president will induce radical change in women’s rights. This statement is bought by some. For example, Clare Foran writes, “Clinton can claim a feminist victory by virtue of winning the nomination,” and quotes television producer Shonda Rhimes when she calls Clinton “a one-woman feminist revolution,” claiming that Hillary is creating real change for women. Judith Lorber claims, “The presence of a woman head of state does not necessarily represent a triumph of feminism, as most women politicians do not represent themselves as champions of women but as leaders of everyone. Feminist political and legal changes are much more likely to come from grassroots political movements and feminist organizations.” In fighting for women’s rights, Hillary may claim that she is a feminist, but will be unable to induce radical change for women while attempting to appeal to everyone.

However, many do not buy the argument that Hilary’s victory in securing the Democratic nomination is a feminist triumph or that she has the right to call herself a feminist at all. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani scoffs at Hillary’s “feminist” standing, accusing that she and her husband take “millions of dollars in speaking fees from dictators, oppressors; from people who discriminate against women to people who run countries where women can’t drive cars,” referring to the millions of dollars Clinton received from Saudi Arabia (Schow). Furthermore, Rex Murphy refutes any claim that Clinton has shattered the “glass ceiling”—a concept that Lorber defines as assuming “that women have the motivation, ambition, and capacity for positions of power and prestige, but hidden barriers keep them from reaching the top” (35). Murphy argues that Clinton has simply ridden on the coattails of her powerful husband and that “real” feminists gain success by themselves, without help from men. Based on these arguments, Clinton cannot be a true feminist while failing to embody feminist ideals. As Radical feminist theory states, women must “unite…in struggle,” and that no real change can happen until men “give up their male privileges and support women’s liberation in the interest of our humanity and their own” (Redstockings 131). Although nominating a woman as president is a great leap from the days where women were denied even the ability to vote, I believe that nominating a woman means the same thing for feminist triumph as electing a Black president did for African American triumph. This victory does not mean that the fight for women’s rights is won, or that it is remotely close to over. Hillary may address some feminist issues, but it is crucial to keep fighting for equity. Full disclose: I do feel a sense of empowerment hearing that a woman’s place is in the White House.


The Monthly Rag: Block 3 2016


#WhichHillary: Activists Respond to Clinton’s White Feminism

By Baheya Malaty (FGS ’18)

Which HillaryAt Hillary Clinton’s most-recent lavish private fundraising event in South Carolina, Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams interrupted the event by holding up a sign which read, “We have to bring them to heel.” The sign was a reference to a speech made by Clinton in 1994 in support of a crime bill that caused an astronomical increase in the mass incarceration of Brown and Black Americans. In support of that bill, Clinton referred to young people of color involved with gangs as “super predators.” In the aftermath of Williams’ direct action, the hashtag #WhichHillary has become a popular one for activists who seek to critique Clinton’s campaign, which has championed itself as dedicated to the fulfillment of women’s rights. Utilizing the frameworks introduced by Bushra Rehman and Daisy Hernandez in Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism will illustrate the contradictions and hypocrisies of Clinton’s brand of feminism, which she has used to great effect in her campaign.

Bushra and Hernandez write, “When the media vilifies a whole race, when a woman breaks the image of a model minority…or when our neighborhoods are being gentrified, this is… where our feminism lies” (378). Thus they articulate the concerns of young feminists of color who initially felt partially liberated by white feminism, but who also felt uncomfortable with and excluded by white feminist analyses and spaces. On Twitter, @erniesfo echoed this tension: “The Hillary Clinton who says she supports Latinos or the one who supports a coup in Honduras? #WhichHillary.” Political commentator and journalist Ali Abunimah wrote, “#WhichHillary, the one who claims to be a lifelong child advocate or the one who never saw an Israeli massacre she didn’t applaud?” Rehman and Hernandez can help illuminate the tension between Clinton’s seemingly advocating progressive policies while simultaneously upholding oppressive ones:

We’ve grown up with legalized abortion, the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and gay liberation, but we still deal with sexual harassment, racist remarks from feminists and the homophobia within our communities. The difference is that now we talk about these issues in women’s studies classes, in classrooms that are multicultural but xenophobic and in a society that pretends to be racially integrated but remains racially profiled. (378)

Clinton and her supporters have thus celebrated her dedication to women’s rights without recognizing the many ways in which her policies been anti-feminist and extremely harmful to women and children.

Activists using the #WhichHillary highlight the ways in which Clinton’s pro-women agenda is not pro-all women; rather, it specifically pertains to the concerns of Western, white, middle and upper class women. In this way, they illustrate how Hillary is not much of a feminist at all, and her championing of women’s rights is more of a marketing scheme than a legitimate political platform. Along these lines, Astrid Henry examines what is lost when people attempt to market feminism:

Without its critiques of white supremacy and privilege, heterosexism, and capitalism—not to mention its continued insistence on examining the ways in which sexism and misogyny continue to operate in the world—feminism becomes nothing but a meaningless bumper sticker announcing “girl power” (390).

Clinton, who has advocated for women’s rights but has also supported legislation which contributed to the mass incarceration of Black Americans and worked with neoconservatives to derail a democratically elected government in Honduras, is emblematic of this brand of feminism. Clinton’s feminism ultimately does little to address actual feminist concerns; therefore, it operates as a “meaningless bumper sticker” through which Clinton can draw support by presenting as a “pro-woman” candidate.