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The Electoral College: What is it? and how does it work?

Raymond Baccari

Anchor Contributor

Photo via

The winner of the presidential election has the most votes once all is said and done, right? Well yes and no, because of the system the United States uses when selecting its President: The Electoral College. You’ve probably heard this term used repeatedly when there is a presidential election because the United States doesn’t use a straight out popular vote when deciding who becomes President. The Electoral College is the system that is used and has been since the founding of our country.

The Electoral College gives each state what we call “electoral votes” allocated across all 50 based on their population. For example, a state like Wyoming with around 578,000 people will have three electoral votes which is the minimum no matter how small a state’s population is. California, which has around 39.5 million people receives 55. Proponents of this system say that this gives every state, no matter how small, at least some say in the presidential election. The reason why the minimum number a state retains is three is that the electoral vote is factored by Congress, meaning the state’s number of representatives plus two for their senators. Therefore, Wyoming has one U.S. House Representative plus the two which represents the Senators every state has, making a total of three electoral votes.

The way a candidate wins electoral votes is by winning a majority of the votes in that state, so even if a candidate won New York by one vote, they get all of New York’s 29 electoral votes. This is the system for all states except for Nebraska and Maine, which split their electoral votes based on how a candidate performs in those states’ congressional districts. The first candidate to get 270 electoral votes is elected President. After election day, those electoral votes are actually electors, who typically are local party leaders or elected officials in that state. They meet in the third week of the following month (late December) in those respective states’ statehouses and cast the actual ballots for President which are the electoral votes. What happens if an elector decides to vote for someone else? Depending on the state they would get fined a few thousand dollars, as some have to sign an oath to vote for the correct candidate, the penalty varies state by state.

Another common question is, why 270? It is considered the majority of all 538 electoral votes possible to be won. The 538 comes from the 435 members of the United States House of Representatives, which is based on a state’s population, and 100 Senators with every state having two no matter how big or small they are, leaving three from Washington D.C. because of the 23rd amendment in the constitution, which grants people in D.C. the ability to have a say in the presidential elections.

People who are against this system argue that it is way too complicated and provides only a handful of voices to be heard since nowadays, candidates only focus on a handful of states that are called “battleground states,” because these states usually are close and can go either way, usually flipping every other election cycle. These states are Ohio (18 electoral votes), Florida (29 electoral votes), Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), Arizona (11 electoral votes), and Michigan (16 electoral votes). There are also states in every election cycle called “safe states” that usually vote for the candidate of a certain party every election cycle regardless of who it is. Examples for this are Alabama, a safe red state, and Massachusetts, a safe blue state, both staying safe states for their respective parties since 1988. The proponents argue that it wouldn’t be strategic for a Republican to campaign in Rhode Island since they usually always vote for the Democratic nominee. Also, a popular vote would make rural parts of the state voiceless since most of the candidates would just campaign in larger cities that have a lot of the population. People who are against this system will point to examples of the 2000 and 2016 elections, where the candidate winning the Electoral College lost the popular vote, to show a President that isn’t representing the majority of the country’s interests. While both of those are fair points, there then is the question of what would be the best solution for this system?

Photo via Hill Street Studios

The only way that the Electoral College itself could be abolished is if a constitutional amendment is passed, which is almost impossible in our current political landscape. However, there are things like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a group of states that have agreed to give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. If the number of electors from all of those states hits 270, then that would be the closest thing to a straight out popular vote without going through a ratification process of getting two-thirds of both the House and Senate to agree on abolition. There are also ideas to modify the Electoral College with things like proportional representation for all states, as currently implemented by Maine and Nebraska. Many say this would incentivize candidates to travel around the country since there are 435 congressional districts, and make more if not all voices heard because of the possibility a candidate coming to campaign in a state like Rhode Island would be more possible than ever before. This is an approach that has more of a possibility to please both sides of the argument regarding the Electoral College since it still keeps the system and modifies it to make every vote count equally without giving advantages or disadvantages to states because of things like political polarization. Another possible modification that has been suggested is the addition of ranked-choice voting in every state, which gives every voter three choices on their ballot. This provides a vote for their first, second, and third choice for President because third-party candidates have had a history of being spoilers to certain candidates and helping others. If no candidate got a majority, greater than 50%, then the candidate with the lowest percentage is eliminated and the votes are relocated based on the voters’ second choice. This promotes the idea that every voice is heard and any potential spoiler candidates won’t hurt a candidate anymore. There are many other arguments and modifications that can be on a list about a mile-long to be honest, but I’ve covered the main ones heard in every discussion regarding this topic.

That’s what the Electoral College is, how it works and what the usual terminology and talking points/arguments are. This is all really important information to know when looking at the system the United States uses in electing its President, especially now more than ever before due to the increased relevance the system has had since the 2000 and 2016 elections.


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