Explainer: How Does the Electoral College Work?

Home » Explainer: How Does the Electoral College Work?

It is not uncommon for people to be confused by the electoral college, how it works and the effect that it has on our U.S. elections, especially among those who don’t follow politics or who are new to voting.  The explanation of the electoral college, though, is really rather simple.

The electoral college is a process that is only used for the purpose of electing a new president or vice president. The college is made up of 538 electors, and the first candidate to receive 270 votes from among these electors will win the race to become president.

The electoral college was created in 1787 to equitably balance out representation for the big and small states. “It allows smaller states to have an equal representation to larger states, and to represent a states’ population, not its size,” Anthony Contipodero, Cabrini University history professor, said. “It was also created to be able to have a faster, more organized election process. Although many people would rather just go off of the popular vote, the electoral college is faster. It has its flaws but gives a more organized status of the election.”

Each state is given a certain number of electors who can each cast one vote. The number of electors in each state is based off its population. For example, California has 55 electors who can each cast a vote because the population of this state is so dense. Whereas a state with a much smaller population, like North Dakota, is only granted 3 electoral votes.

Many people believe that the electoral college is what truly makes the decision of president and that the popular vote doesn’t matter, but this is not true. While the electoral college is technically the final decider, the popular vote usually determines which way their state will swing. If the popular vote in California is for the democratic candidate, the California electors will most likely vote in favor of the popular vote in order to secure their own position as an elector in the future, by catering to the people.

One of the biggest reasons that people have become discouraged in the popular vote’s effect on the election is because of the 2016 election when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton despite Clinton winning the popular vote. This outcome came about because of what is called faithless electors. Faithless electors are electors who do not vote for the candidate that they have pledged to vote for.

In the 2016 election, five out of ten faithless electors voted for Trump despite their pledged vote to go to Clinton. This was a big factor as to why Trump was able to beat Clinton and win the White House, thereby making him the fifth person to win the presidency while losing the popular vote.

Yet again, the 2016 presidential election outcome does not mean that the popular vote fails to matter. As stated before, it is most likely that the electors of a state will abide by the popular vote in order to secure their position of an elector in the future, considering that the people of that state vote for who their electors are, making this situation very rare and electors could suffer consequences.

According to Contipodero, “Back in revolutionary times, people were not well educated, so by 1890 only 2% of the population were graduates. The founding fathers did not have confidence to make the decision to vote people into office, allowing the popular vote, along with educated individuals. Now, people are obviously more educated and we still have electors, therefore the popular vote does have say which influences the electors. Electors are representatives for the people.”

States have the right to require formal pledges from the electors of that state, saying that they will vote for the candidate that is supported by their states’ popular vote. There are also some penalties levied on those who decide to go against their pledge, should they be required to make one, which is why several faithless electors from the 2016 election were able to be disqualified and replaced.

As explained by Fairvote, “The 32 states (plus the District of Columbia) that require faithfulness do not always include any penalty for casting a deviant vote. Of those 32 states, 11 provide that the deviant vote is cancelled, and the elector replaced, two allow the vote to be counted as cast but impose a penalty on the elector, and two both cancel the vote and assess a penalty to the elector.”

That being said, there are ways that candidates can try to influence the outcome of the electoral college by appealing to the people in order to gain the popular vote in as many states as possible, thereby increasing their chances of that state giving their electoral votes to that candidate.

“Platforms speak volumes to electors. Each candidate is going to have to take a stance on major issues. They need to have a strong platform supported by their party, not by tending to that party’s needs, but gain support based off of what they believe. They need to address their platform and issues head on and stay on the issues to gain more educated Americans who are going to listen to them,” Contipodero said.

Having a strong platform by staying true to your beliefs and not catering to a certain party’s ideals could end up being the deciding factor in the upcoming 2020 election. Also, depending on how well each candidate performs in each state to gain supporters, the chances of them winning the election could change drastically.

There are certain states that tend to be more important to the candidates. They are known as swing states. Swing states are ones where voting outcomes have not been consistent in the past and could swing to either side of the party line. For example, the state of Texas has remained consistent by voting for the Republican party every election, just as how California usually remains consistent by voting for the Democratic candidate. However, swing states are states that have voted for both parties in the past and continue to sway either way, making these states crucial for candidates to win over because there is a sense of uncertainty.

The swing states include, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin, making these states crucial to presidential candidates, especially because some of these states, like Pennsylvania and Florida, hold a large number of electoral votes.

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 


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