The Electoral College: A Dive into our Democratic Systems


Elizabeth Alton

As the 2020 presidential race between Joe Biden and President Donald Trump draws nearer, tensions rise throughout the United States. As early voting has commenced, many people are already bracing for November 3rd. With the Supreme Court already having stepped in with a ruling about mail-in ballot deadlines in Pennsylvania and fears rising about the integrity of this election, it’s increasingly important that we, as citizens (albeit citizens that can’t vote yet), understand the systems that put our president into office. I looked into the Electoral College in an attempt to better understand the democratic process: what it is, how it works, and why it was founded. 

The Electoral College emerged during the constitutional convention in 1787. As Michele, the 11th grade AP Gov teacher, explains, “There was a lot of tension between the desire to have a more demcoratic form of government, but also the fear of ignorance, the fear of tyranny of the majority, and also of tyranny of the minority.” They were balancing the “fear that the masses would make bad decisions and that they didn’t have the sort of intellect or education to make thoughtful decisions for their future, but also the fear that they would be ruled by very few people with very little power.”

Creating a government that was able to do so would be the key to long standing success in their (our!) country. The Electoral College wasn’t the only option on the table. The Virginia plan (proposed by the representatives from Virginia), recommended that Congress elect the president. Others, like James Madison (who would go on to be the 4th president of the US), supported a popular vote. Overall, the framers were worried that the population of the US wouldn’t be educated enough as a whole to make an informed decision in an election, but also that if Congress picked the president, the legislative branch would gain too much influence, which would disrupt the ever-so-delicate checks and balances they were working to build. 

Michele explained, “If a presidential candidate didn’t have the Electoral College, they wouldn’t have as much incentive to go to all 50 states, and they wouldn’t have as much of an incentive to get themselves to the middle of the country where they have smaller populations.” 

So how does the Electoral College work? While the general system is the same on a federal level, there are a few intricacies that differ on a state by state basis. Each state has a different number of electoral votes. The number of electoral votes that a state has is equal to the number of senators (two per state) plus the number of congressmen (scaled by population). So, for example, Maine, a state with a smaller population, has two senators and two congressional representatives, meaning that they have four Electoral College votes. A state like California, with a massive population, has over fifty electoral votes.

The electors who cast their ballots aren’t the members of the House and Senate, they’re your average citizens. While the method used to determine this slate varies per state, in every state, each party (Republicans and Democrats) put together a slate of electors. To be considered you have to be registered as a voter, a member of your party, and pledge to vote with your party’s ticket. 

Even though the rest of the country votes on the first Tuesday after November 1st, the electors officially cast their ballots in mid-December. 26 states, plus the District of Columbia, do something called binding their electors, which means that there are legal repercussions if electors vote against their promised candidate. 

All of this said, the Electoral College is not without its flaws. One of the most unpopular things about the Electoral College is, quite frankly, the fact that it’s not the popular vote. Out of the 58 elections that we’ve had since the birth of the union, five of them have elected a president who received fewer votes than his opponent, including in the case of President Trump.

Additionally, under the Electoral College, a strong argument can be made for the fact that not every vote counts. In 48 states, depending on which party wins the popular vote, their entire slate of electors is chosen. Take Texas during the 2016 presidential election, for example. Trump got 4,685,047 votes and Hillary got 3,877,868, but because Trump got more votes, the entire Republican slate of electors were chosen, and Trump got 38 electoral votes while Hillary got none. The same goes for every other person who voted for a party that didn’t get the majority of votes in their state. In 1823, James Madison even wrote that he thought that the winner-take-all rule failed to reflect the true political diversity of their citizens. He even went as far as to propose a constitutional amendment to alter the system.

There’s also the concern that even if every vote was counted, they don’t all necessarily have the same value under an Electoral College system. As Michele explained, “the population of Wyoming is just under 600,000 people meaning that their one repsentive represents 600,000 people, the population of New York on the other hand is almost 20 million.” Each one of New York’s representatives represent closer to 700,000 people. “There’s about a 100,000 person difference between those populations, which means when it comes to both representation in congress and electoral votes, larger states have less representation and [fewer] votes.”

Regardless of your view on the Electoral College, I hope this was helpful in understanding it a bit better! Check out my full interview with Michele attached below. And remember, no matter what your opinion of the Electoral College is, it is up to all of us to be educated about the democratic processes that make our country what it is today!