The Electoral College

The Electoral College is a unique and sometimes controversial feature of United States elections. It is the tool that the Constitution sets up in order to elect a president.

With the Electoral College, the people in each state have representatives called electors. On Election Day, the people aren't actually voting for the president, they are voting for electors who will choose the president they like. It's almost like electing a second Congress whose only job is to elect the President.

Why Do We Have an Electoral College?

The Electoral College was created for two reasons. The first purpose was to create a buffer between population and the selection of a President. The second purpose was part of a compromise to make sure smaller states could still count in an election.

The first reason that the founders created the Electoral College is hard to understand today. The founding fathers were afraid of direct election to the Presidency. They feared a tyrant could manipulate public opinion and come to power. 

The founders hoped that the electors would be able to ensure that only a qualified person becomes President. They believed that with the Electoral College would act as check on voters that might be easily fooled. The founders also believed that the Electoral College had the advantage of being a group that met only once and thus could not be manipulated over time by foreign governments or others.

The electoral college is also part of compromises made at the Constitutional Convention to satisfy the small states. Under the system of the Electoral College, each state had the same number of electoral votes as they have representative in Congress, thus no state could have less then 3 electors, no matter how small the state's population is.

How Does the Electoral College Work?

How Many Electors Does Each State Have?

Today, each state has a number of electors equal to the number of its US Senators (two in each state) plus the number of its US Representatives, which varies according to the state's population. For example, Louisiana has two Senators and six U.S. representatives for a total of eight electoral votes.

Overall, the Electoral College includes 538 electors: 535 for the total number of congressional members plus the three electors who represent Washington, D.C.

Does the Electoral College Favor Big States or Small States?

One of the biggest debates about the Electoral College is whether it favors small states or big states. Some say it causes candidates to ignore the small states because bigger states offer more electors. Some say it gives states with small populations, like Wyoming and North Dakota, more influence because they have a higher share of the electors than they do of the overall population.

Take a look at the pie charts below. The first one shows how population in the US is distributed. For example, California has 12.2% of the total population of the United States. The second chart shows how electors in the US are distributed. There you will see that California only has 10.2% of the total electors in the US. 

Population: Top 10 States vs. Bottom 40 States & the District of Columbia

Electors: Top 10 States vs. Bottom 40 States & the District of Columbia

Does the Electoral College Tell Us What Most Americans Want?

In most presidential elections, the candidate who wins the popular vote will also receive the majority of the electoral votes, but this is not always the case. Some electors abstain from voting, while others vote differently than they pledged to vote. Despite 11th hour changes within the Electoral College, only four candidates in U.S. history have won an election by losing the popular vote and winning (or deadlocking) the electoral vote. 

Election Officials Manually Recounting Florida Votes in the 2000 Election

  • 1824: John Quincy Adams, the son of former President John Adams, received about 38,000 fewer votes than Andrew Jackson, but neither candidate won a majority of the Electoral College. When there is no majority, the election goes to the House of Representatives. In this case, the House of Representatives chose John Adams. 
  • 1876: Nearly unanimous support from small states gave Rutherford B. Hayes a one-vote margin in the Electoral College, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote to Samuel  Tilden by 264,000 votes.
  • 1888: Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote by 95,713 votes to Grover Cleveland, but won the electoral vote by 65. In this instance, some say the Electoral College worked the way it is designed to work by preventing a candidate from winning an election based on support from only one region of the country. The South overwhelmingly supported Cleveland, and he won by more than 425,000 votes in six southern states. However, in the rest of the country he lost by more than 300,000 votes.
  • 2000: Al Gore received 50,992,335 votes nationwide and George W. Bush received 50,455,156 votes. Many of Florida's votes were recounted by hand because the ballots confused the machines that were supposed to count them. Eventually, Bush was awarded the state of Florida by the U.S. Supreme Court, giving Bush a total of 271 electoral votes and Gore a total of 266 electoral votes.

How can a candidate win the popular vote and still lose the Electoral College?

A difference between the popular and electoral vote generally results from one candidate narrowly winning a number of states with a majority of the electoral votes, while losing badly in other states. Consider the following model of a country with five states, each with 100 voters and one electoral vote:

State A: Candidate X gets 100 votes, Candidate Y gets 0 votes
State B: Candidate X gets 100 votes, Candidate Y gets 0 votes
State C: Candidate X gets 40 votes, Candidate Y gets 60 votes
State D: Candidate X gets 40 votes, Candidate Y gets 60 votes
State E: Candidate X gets 40 votes, Candidate Y gets 60 votes
Candidate X: 320 total votes, 2 electoral votes
Candidate Y: 180 total votes, 3 electoral votes

While candidate X receives more votes than candidate Y, candidate X wins three of the five states, and therefore, the presidency.

How Many Voters Does Each Elector Represent?

Some people are concerned that the Electoral College does not accurately represent every voter because the electors are not distributed equally.

If you look at the chart below, you will see that, depending on the state he or she belongs to, an elector can represent as many as 709,394 people (Texas) or as few as 194, 718 (Wyoming). This means that for Texas voters, their vote has only 14% of the power of a voter in Wyoming!

Voters per Elector

The Argument AGAINST the Electoral College

The Argument FOR the Electoral College

Would You Like to Know More?

Explore these links to learn more about how the electoral college works!

Videos on how the Electoral College Works

CGP Grey: How the Electoral College Works

Does Your Vote Count? The Electoral College Explained

Schoolhouse Rock: The Electoral College