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The Electoral College

Deciphering the Electoral College, the system that elects the United States president.
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Simply Civics

One of the more confusing structures of our constitution is the Electoral College. While most democracies in the world elect their chief executive by a majority of the popular vote, in the United States the process of electing our president is rather complex, and in some respects undemocratic. The founding fathers in developing the electoral process were concerned that a popular vote for the president would place too much power in the hands of the common people instead of the elites, who they felt could be counted on to make decisions and lead the country in a more “responsible,” and likely self-serving manner.

To achieve this goal, the election of the president was organized by popular votes within states with electoral votes allocated by the number of representatives in the House and two senators. For example, using today’s electoral college process, California has 54 electoral votes (52 representatives and two senators), while Massachusetts has 11 electoral votes (nine representatives and two senators). The total number of electoral votes for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia is 538, and a majority of those votes is 270. Therefore, when the election of the president (and the vice-president since they combine as one vote) is conducted, the president who wins individual states by popular vote and the electoral votes that accompany the votes linked to the state adds those votes to their total. When that total adds up to 270 or more, the president is declared the winner.

What this means is that our national presidential election is a state driven process — win the popular vote in as many states as possible that add up to 270 or more and victory is secured. By electing a president based on state electoral votes, the founding fathers were assured that the people would not control the outcome, but rather the states, especially the larger states like Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York, where many of the monied and landed elites like Washington, Jefferson and Adams came from, gained control of the reins of government.

But while choosing a president from an electoral vote total may appear to be a simple calculation of state votes, the process can become complicated. Should no candidate gain 270 electoral votes, the choice of the president and vice president is shifted to the House of Representatives where each state has one vote — California is equal to Massachusetts. Whichever candidate gains a majority of the state determined votes (51 votes or more) is declared the victor. But the casting of those single votes can be even more complicated as each state has to decide which candidate receives that one vote. Political party and ideological differences within each state can make deciding on the vote difficult if not highly partisan.

The question of why democratic practice in the election of the president and vice-president is complicated and also problematic concerns the power of states with a large number of electoral votes. Win the popular vote in just the most populous states like California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and the key threshold of 270 is attained. In theory, 11 state victories can secure the presidency. Of course, winning the popular vote in those 11 states is certainly not guaranteed, but it does show the impact of how the electoral college is skewed toward what has come to be called “battleground” states that could hold the balance of electoral power. Moreover, the total of votes cast for a particular presidential candidate becomes less important than the total of the vote within each state. For example, Hilary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president in 2016 received 65,853,625 popular votes to Donald Trump’s 62,985,106, but he received 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232 electoral votes and won the presidency. Clinton’s popular vote margin meant little in an electoral college system; what mattered was winning states and gaining their electoral votes.

Because of the impact of the large states in the electoral college, candidates for the presidency often will spend considerable time in those 11 states and spend less time and valuable financial resources on the smaller states that contribute only a few electoral votes to the goal of 270 or more. But if the race for the 270 is close and both candidates for the presidency are nearing the 270 total, states like Wyoming (three electoral votes), Vermont (three electoral votes) and South Dakota and North Dakota (three electoral votes each) to name a few could become critical. What is even more complicated and undemocratic is that it is possible that a candidate for the presidency could gain a minority of the popular vote but still win if they won a combination of large and small states that added up to the 270 goal or more. This scenario occurred not only in the Clinton-Trump election of 2016 but also in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.

Because of the unique character of the United States electoral system for the presidency, state election strategy becomes critical. Not only is it important to get out the vote for the candidate to secure a state victory and capture the electoral votes, but in a close election in a state it is vitally important to ensure that the final vote total is accurate and free from any form of tampering, miscalculation or outright fraud. In the 2020 election, the Trump presidential campaign was accused of developing a scheme of “fake electors” — party leaders from the Republican party or Trump loyalists not appointed by the state officials who would illegally certify the final total in a state (Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin where Biden won was where the fake electors scheme was prominent) and send those fake certifications to Washington to be counted as the correct total so as to assist Donald Trump in winning the electoral votes from those states. The scheme was uncovered and led to criminal charges against the fake electors. The fake electors scheme pointed to the challenges that can occur within the electoral college process.

There have been many calls within the American electoral system to remove the Electoral College and replace it with a straight popular vote decision. Such an action would require an amendment to the Constitution, which is not only difficult but would be opposed by smaller states who have the potential to benefit from influencing the final electoral vote tally. This call for removal of the Electoral College was especially prominent after the victory of Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton, despite her popular vote count lead of nearly 3 million votes. The presidential election of 2024 will again place the Electoral College in the national spotlight as a close vote total could once again create confusion as both candidates may question the votes in key states and demand reviews of the outcome. Although it would simply be easier to count all the votes from the American public and declare the winner based on who got the most votes, a less complicated and more democratic process of choosing out president does not appear to be possible.