The Electoral College, Explained

Published On October 17, 2013 | By james |


In keeping with the educational component of The Everlasting GOP Stoppers, and due in no small part to the rampant gerrymandering of congressional districts that both parties have historically used to manipulate it in order to entrench congressional candidates, we’ve decided to put together a primer to explain The Electoral College, the process by which the United States uses to officially elect its President and Vice President. Here, we will give a brief explanation of what it is, how it works, it’s benefits and shortcomings, and how it is manipulated by both of our major political parties.

The Electoral College was inserted into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers as a compromise of the President and Vice President being elected by Congress and by that of the popular vote, and as a way to promote fairness between states. In theory, it was envisioned to give smaller states with less people more leverage so that the will of the larger, more populous states would not dominate the election process. The United States has 435 elected Representatives (one for each congressional district) and 100 Senators (two for each state). One Electoral Vote is designated for each of these congressmen, and an additional 3 were issued to the District of Columbia (which is not a state) by the 23rd Amendment which was ratified in 1961. This gives us 538 Electoral Votes. 270 (half of the existing, plus 1), are needed to win a general election. If one examines each state and counts its electoral votes, you’ll notice some abnormalities as it relates to the formula referenced above. There are reasons for this, but to keep things simple for this discussion, we won’t get into them here. The video at the bottom of the page explains that in futher detal.

Electoral-CollegeWhen an individual casts his or her vote for President in a general election, they are actually voting for an Elector who has pledged their vote for a particular set of candidates. While most Electors are chosen by the parties themselves and are usually highly active within their local parties, it’s important to note that the Electors are not actually bound to their pledges, and in some rare cases have actually cast votes contrary for which they were elected.

While not all states divvy up their Electoral Votes in the same manner – Maine and Nebraska use what is called “proportional representation” – the rest are “winner take all.” This is one of the biggest problems with the Electoral College because it means that even if a candidate wins a very narrow margin of the popular vote (in Florida in 2000, the difference in popular vote between Al Gore and George Bush was 0.0092%), that candidate receives ALL of that state’s available Electoral Votes.

This of course, opens the door to gerrymandering, a process pioneered by Elbridge Thomas Gerry, whereby districts are redrawn to disproportionally represent and benefit a specific party. There are two main ways to do this. One, often referred to as “packing,” is where districts are re-drawn to heavily load a certain type of voter into the same districts to reduce their influence on other districts. A good example of this was recently attempted in Virginia on inauguration day, in a bill that was ultimately killed amid national outrage. The other method is called “cracking,” where voters of a certain type are distributed among many other districts of opposite voting types, thereby denying them a reliable voting bloc in a particular district.

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Critics of the Electoral College have also pointed out that what was intended to give smaller states a level playing field has actually served to make them even more critical in a national election strategy. This helped create what are known as “battleground states.” National candidates know that, as an example, California and its nation-leading 55 Electoral votes, being the most populous state and solidly Democratic, would be a waste of valuable resources in a national campaign and therefore gets far less attention than smaller states that could swing either way. This of course violates the very spirit upon which the Electoral College itself was created.

In the following video, you’ll see an example where it’s possible to win the presidency with 22% of the popular vote. It’s scary stuff, and entirely possible.

There have long been both proponents and opponents of the Electoral College in its present form, and there is a national movement that is gaining more support to the National Popular Vote. This movement is being fiercely opposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an uber-conservative lobbing group led by the Koch Brothers.

You will be hearing more about that here soon.

See Distribution of Electoral Votes HERE.

Read more about the Electoral College HERE.

Read more about the National Popular Vote HERE.

Read more about ALEC HERE.

  • kccoallday

    Of course ALEC and conservatives would be against a popular vote method, because they know the people would reject their ideology. They can only succeed by keeping the rules in their favor.

    The electoral college is outdated and needs to go.

  • oldngrumpy1

    If the one person, one vote principle were actually practiced both parties would have to move away from their extremist bases and appeal more to the logical center. Most of the ills we are now facing in our divided nation are the results of this convoluted system. We shouldn’t allow entire populations of voters to be ignored, regardless of their party affiliation. Also, with the control of national election criteria given to state and local activists, we can’t afford the present hands off policy that Justice takes to avoid the appearance of partisanship. No voter should feel that he has no impact on our democratic process, no matter where s/he lives.

  • Tim McAninch

    Doesn’t the 22% scenario rely on the other States getting 100% of the votes for the other candidate?

  • Anthony_McCarthy

    The Electoral College, the undemocratic representation in the Senate, the obscene amendment process in which state legislatures representing an absurdly tiny percentage of the population can kill any reform, such as replacing the E.C. with the popular vote, all of those are the burden that the slave owners put on the United States through the constitution. And, even with the Civil War and other upheavals, we haven’t been able to force democratic change. Our Constitution was made with built in bars on democracy, the National Popular Vote might be the best we can achieve under the putrid rules, if those guys are against it, it must be better than what we’ve got.

  • toto

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    When the bill is enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated,
    or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of
    evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President.
    Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the
    President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial
    property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).
    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%.
    Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 32 state legislative chambers in 21 states with 243 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 10 jurisdictions with 136 electoral votes – 50.4% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.


    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

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  • marecek21

    The Electoral College is a critical institution, and discussion of it is welcome, but I am not sure this short article does much justice to the problem. For one thing, it goes off on a tangent concerning gerrymandering. While gerrymandering is also a key topic, it has no impact whatsoever on the electoral college. When we vote for President and Vice-President, we are actually voting for a slate (group) of electors (the article said elector, which is false). As a California resident, I vote for a slate of 55 electors. What follows from these points is that each citizen only votes in their local (state or DC) election for electors; we do not participate in a national popular vote direct election of the President. Also, with the noted exception of Maine and Nebraska, we are voting for the slate of electors as a group – you either vote for the Democratic group as a whole or the Republican, and the winning slate is elected as a whole. This means that gerrymandering has absolutely no effect on the elections to the Electoral College.

  • Janice

    The electoral college should be abolished to insure a fair voting process. Our elections should be based on popular vote only. Elections should not be sold to the highest bidder!