The Electoral College: What Is It, Anyway?

James Madison, one of our country's founding fathers, spoke in the Federalist Papers (#10) about the voices minorities would hold if a strong national government presided over a country with a wide array of different voices and backgrounds. One of the key methods to ensure such a system via Federalism was a creation of the Electoral College.

Whether you read the news or not, you’ve likely heard the term “Electoral College” being tossed around in everyday life. It’s also likely that you’ve heard it in the same sentence as the words “abolish” “necessary” and “popular vote”. In truth, after every individual casts their vote on Election Day, when these votes are counted up to see who gets a majority, they don’t actually

determine who wins elections. (That’s what the “popular vote” is.)

Instead, every state in the US is given a certain number of electoral votes. The number of electoral votes awarded to each state is decided according to the sum of House Representatives and Senators in each state. (Both Maine and Nebraska have more complicated situations, for they both split their electoral votes.)

For simplicity’s sake, let’s take the example of Obama and Romney in 2012, and imagine that the state of Michigan has 4 electoral votes. (In reality, it has 16.) The candidate who receives the most votes in a certain state on Election Day wins all of the state’s electoral votes. So, in our hypothetical situation, if Obama received 10,000 Michigan votes that year and Romney received 5,000, all 4 of Michigan’s electoral votes would have gone to Obama.

After the individual state’s vote is counted, state delegates (each delegate has one electoral vote) all cast their vote for whichever candidate won the majority in their respective state. In our case, all 4 state delegates would have cast their vote for Obama. (There have been instances of delegates voting against their state’s winning candidate, but most states have laws against doing so today.) At the end of election night, the amount of electoral votes are tallied up to determine the winner-- that’s the reason for all those weird numbers on the screen on Election Night, and why everyone waits anxiously for their candidate to hit the number 270: A candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to win.

You may be asking yourself, “Why do we need this system at all, why can’t we simply count every vote to determine who wins?” Circling back to Madison’s point about the importance of minority voices being paramount to an indirect democracy, the electoral college is arguably the best way for citizens in the smallest states to have their voices heard. If we elected presidents based on popular vote, issues in a small state like Rhode Island might go unheard.

For example, if Rhode Island was having issues with water purification, and one presidential candidate promised to allocate some federal funds to fix the problems -- while another candidate promised nationwide tax cuts that would originally be used to fix the issue, rather than working on repairing it. Citizens in New York would likely vote for the candidate that promises the cuts, as water purification in Rhode Island would be of no concern to them. New York being a significantly more densely populated state than Rhode Island, this practically makes it pointless for citizens in Rhode Island to even vote on issue, they won’t have a voice. The Electoral College, however, makes it so that while the dense population of New York means that they have a larger voice in the election, gives the state of Rhode Island a heard voice, despite its comparatively smaller population.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Great Compromise deemed that an Electoral College necessary to ensure that the voices of all the people would be heard. The argument was that without the Electoral College, minority states with their own perspectives would be drowned out by the dense populations of other states, who are largely unaffected by what occurs in smaller states. Without the informed voices of people in all parts of the United States, some believe that we no longer would have a system of democracy that caters to everyone, and we’d have the system that Madison wanted so desperately to avoid.

Some policy experts say that the Electoral College gives an unfair advantage to less populated states, thereby allowing them to have inordinate influence over elections, thereby not accurately representing the popular sentiment of the country. Some have called for an end to the Electoral College, supporting the idea that the popular vote is the most authentic way to reflect what citizens believe is in their best interest.

image source: