A Guide to the Electoral College

University of New England Center for Global Humanities

What is the Electoral College?

On the first Tuesday after November 1st, the people of the United States come together and vote for the next Presidential Administration of the United States. 

Why Does it Exist? 

James Madison

 One of the founding founders, James Madison, was worried about factions and citizens making uninformed decisions. Faction, were what he defined as “groups of citizens who have a common interest in some proposal that would either violate the rights of other citizens or would harm the nation as a whole” 

Alexander Hamilton

The founding fathers also didn’t want to tell the states how to conduct their elections. However, they also feared that states with larger populations would choose the President and votes of smaller states wouldn’t carry as much weight.

According to Alexander Hamilton in “The Federalist Papers” , the Constitution was written to ensure that the Presidency would never be put into the hands of someone who is unqualified to hold such a position. Similarly, the point of the Electoral College is to “preserve the sense of the people” while ensuring the President is chosen by those who are able to analyze the various qualities and qualifications of candidates.

The Electoral College was actually a compromise between Congress choosing the President or national popular voting. 


How It Works

Americans do not directly vote for their next President. Instead, the people vote for 538 electors (438 Representatives + 100 Senators +  3 Electors from Washington, D.C.). According to the Constitution, the electors meet in their respective states and cast their votes, which are then counted by the President of the Senate in a joint congressional session.

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance



In order to successfully win the Presidency, a candidate must receive at least 270 votes. The total number of electors, 538, can only change if there is a constitutional amendment or more legislators are added on Capitol Hill; however, the number of electors per state changes every ten years after the Census. 

In most cases, states give all electoral votes to the candidate who won the popular vote. However, in the case of a tie or neither candidate receives 270 votes: the election is then up to the House of Representatives. The states delegation receives one vote, which is to go to one of the three candidates that received the most votes. If a decision cannot be made by March 4, the 12th Amendment states the Presidency goes to the Vice Presidential Candidate – although, the date was moved to January 20 by the 20th Amendment

Issues with the Electoral College

  1. Electors are not legally bound to vote for the candidate that receives the state’s popular votes. There is no federal law; however, 29 states (including the District of Columbia) have legal control over how their electors cast votes. This means there are 21 states that have no requirements or any control over how their electors vote. Ultimately, the electors are able to vote however they please without any legal repercussions. Even in the states that have control – punishments are minimal. These electors are known as “faithless electors”. 
  2. The 2016 election shows that a President can be elected despite not winning the popular vote. This wasn’t the first time this happened either. In 2000 President Bush won against Al Gore in 1824 and again in 1876. In a system of winner-takes-all, it is essentially impossible to clearly tell which candidate the people prefer.
  3. It is feared that the Electoral College will systematically over represent the views of a small number of people due to its structure. Currently, each state has two votes no matter the population size, and additional votes are given to match its number of representatives in the House. A Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program study explains that 15% of the counties in the United States produce 64% of the U.S Gross Domestic Product (GDP: market value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given period of time) . The East and West Coasts, as well as a few areas in between, produce a majority of the economic activity within the United States. These areas consist of approximately 15 states with 30 senators, while the less economically active states (approx. 35) have 70 senators.
  4. States that aren’t important to the electoral process do not get visited by the Presidential campaigns. States that candidates know they can win in or lose in are written off and not visited. 
  5. The Electoral College distorts governance. A first-term President that expects a tough bid for reelection will consider the consequences of certain policies and whether or not they will affect their chances of keeping or even winning certain states.



20191120 student bowen alexandria

Currently a Senior at Ohio Northern University, Alex is majoring in Political Science and minoring in International Studies, Public Policy, Geography and Social Media. Currently involved with organizations such as Amnesty International USA, Alex is a dedicated activist on all fronts. In the future, she hopes to go to Law School to obtain her J.D in order to continue the never-ending fight for rights.

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