In the United States, each citizen gets one vote—down from the local county clerk up to the President of the United States.
But for the highest offices in the land – the President and the Vice President – the old adage becomes complicated by an all-important, if little understood, constitutional provision: the Electoral College.
What exactly is the Electoral College? Why does it exist? Could it ever be changed? We’ll answer common questions below to square away any confusions about our experiment in democracy.
What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is a group of 538 people who gather to elect the president and vice president of the United States. Each member has one vote and is known as an “elector.”
Who selects the 538 electors?
The electors are appointed by political parties in each state. On Election Day, voters actually vote for electors, who represent a candidate of a certain party. For example, the popular vote in Illinois went for Democrat Hillary Clinton on Election Day 2016, so the state sent its 20 Democratic electors to vote in the Electoral College.
So voters don’t directly vote for the president and vice president?
That’s right. Voters select electors, who then elect the president.
By law, a presidential election is held every four years on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November.” In 2016, that date – when all U.S. citizens head to the voting booth – was November 8. The Electoral College then meets “on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.” In 2016, that vote occurred on December 19.
How many electoral votes are needed to win?
A candidate needs to obtain a majority of the electoral votes, or at least 270 of the total 538 electors. In December 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency with 304 total electoral votes.
Why 538 electors? How is that number determined?
Each of the 50 states has as many electoral votes as its number of senators and representatives, combined, in the U.S. Congress. North Carolina, for example, has 15 electors. California, the most populous state, has 55. Seven states – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North and South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming – have the minimum of three.
Washington, D.C. also receives three electoral votes, though the District has no representatives or senators in Congress. Non-state territories like Puerto Rico and Guam have no electors or voting members of Congress.
How exactly do voters choose the electors who will cast ballots in the Electoral College?
In 48 states, the electors of the party that wins the popular vote (that is, a plurality of votes) in that state ultimately vote in the December Electoral College.
The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which chooses electors in part by popular vote across the state and in part by popular vote in specific congressional districts. For instance, in 2016 Maine supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a statewide margin of roughly 48% to 45%, respectively. However, Trump still picked up an electoral vote in the state by winning the lion’s share of votes in Maine’s 2nd congressional district.
Can you earn more of the popular vote than your opponent and still lose the presidency?
Yes. This is the crux of perennial controversy surrounding the Electoral College: a candidate can receive more votes nationally and still lose in the Electoral College.
According to the LA Times, this has happened four times in U.S. history: in 1876, when the Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but ultimately lost in the electoral college to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in one of the most highly-fraught moments in American political history; in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison became president over popular-vote leader Grover Cleveland; in 2000, when Al Gore beat George W. Bush by more than 500,000 votes but eventually lost in a Supreme Court-decided contest; and again in 2016, when Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than President Donald Trump.
(In 1824, Andrew Jackson won both the popular vote and the Electoral College but failed to secure a plurality of electors. The election then went to the U.S. House of Representatives, which instead selected John Quincy Adams, much to the chagrin of Jackson and his supporters.)
How can someone be elected president with fewer votes?
Under the Electoral College, voters in the United States don’t have equal voting power. Because the Electoral College isn’t perfectly proportional by state, geography gives some voters disproportionate power over Americans in other states.
Simple arithmetic reveals the distortion. California has 55 electoral votes and a population of about 39.3 million. Each California elector thus represents about 715,000 residents of the Golden State. By contrast, the least populous state, Wyoming, has about 586,000 residents. It has three electors vote for just under 200,000 citizens apiece.
That means that a Wyoming voter has about 3.6x the electoral power of a California resident, for no reason other than geography.
But does this electoral distortion actually impact elections?
Do Americans support this system of electing a president?
Recent polls suggest that most Americans want to amend or abolish the Electoral College, though only by a slim margin. This hasn’t changed since 1987, according to CBS News. However, the question is highly politicized, with Democrats tending to support election-by-popular vote and Republicans tending to support the current system.
So why does this system exist in the first place?
Historians and legal scholars still debate the intent and design of the Electoral College, which evolved gradually in response to unique political problems of the early republic. The most widely accepted explanations include a “filtration system” that would steer ultimate authority from low-information voters toward vetted electors, a system for slave-holding southern states to bolster their electoral power, and as a counterbalance for smaller, less-populous states against the larger, more-populated ones.
Could the Electoral College ever change?
Yes, but it would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution—an arduous, divisive, and lengthy process that could take years. By Article V of the U.S. Constitution, the most straightforward option would involve an amendment passed by two-thirds of Congress, which would then need approval from three-fourths of the fifty states.
Alternatively, some states have signed on to a constitutional workaround: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This Compact is an agreement among states, once enough states have signed on, that each state will give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome in that particular state. Currently, 11 states have signed on, and the Compact would only take effect once states worth more than a collective 270 electoral votes have signed on.
What can I do?
Next, take action at the state level. So far, 11 states have signed onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Find out whether your state has agreed to the Compact, and if they haven’t, call your state representative and ask them to sponsor a bill to do so.