How do we elect our president? Explaining the Electoral College


In 2016, Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the race to the White House, despite not winning the popular vote. How was this possible?

Unlike other elections for American political offices, the presidential election is not decided through the popular vote. Instead, the future president is decided through the electoral college. This essentially means that states rather than individuals determine the outcome of the presidential election.


Among the many topics debated during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, one of the most heated was how to elect the president. Some opted for a direct, popular vote while others advocated for Congress to decide. Framers feared that a popular vote could lead to an uneducated “democratic mob” majority, but, at the same time, a Congressional vote could lead to corruption and chumminess between the executive and legislative branches. The Founding Fathers debated for months until finally reaching a compromise. The electoral college was established in Article II, Section 1, Clauses 2 and 3 of the United States constitution. 

In Practice:

The Founding Fathers’ compromise put the fears of both sides to rest. The state appoints a specific number of electors, equal to the total number of representatives and senators. For example, the state of California has 55 electors because it has 53 representatives and 2 senators. Technically, these electors pick the president, not the people. Alexander Hamilton writes in Federalist No. 68 that electors would be “men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” The popular vote for each state is counted, and the electors from said state usually cast their votes according to the people’s will. It is extremely rare for an elector to vote against the result of the popular vote. In most states this system is winner-take-all, so all of the electors’ votes go towards the candidate that has won the state’s popular vote. This is why “swing states” or “battleground states” are so influential in the presidential election. Out of 538 electoral votes, a candidate has to win 270 to make it to the White House. If no one reaches 270, the election is decided by the House of Representatives. 

Swing States:

Swing states are states with closer general elections than most other states. Also known as “battleground” states, swing states in the 2020 election include Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and possibly Texas. Because of the winner-take-all nature of the electoral college, presidential candidates will focus more time and energy on winning these states than they would states where there is a much larger population of a particular party. For example, Donald Trump would spend less time in California because of a large Democrat majority, but he would focus more time on Wisconsin to sway the undecided voters needed to tip the scales for an overall advantage in electoral votes.

(Artwork by Ashley Lewis/Ethic News)

Pros of the Electoral College:

The main argument in support of the electoral college is that it makes sure that all parts of this rather large country are involved in the electoral process. Without it, politicians would only have to appeal to big cities and urban areas. They could ignore less populous suburban and rural areas and still win the election. There is also the argument that an electoral college removes the possibility of an uninformed, tyrannical majority. It is another protection of minority rights guaranteed by the constitution. Ashley Lewis, a senior at Redlands East Valley, says “it gives representation to small groups and small cities because normally small states’ votes would go down the drain.”

Cons of the Electoral College:

The main argument against the electoral college is that it may not accurately represent the overall opinions of the U.S. population. There have been instances where presidents have been elected without getting the popular vote in 1876, 1888, 2000 and, most recently, 2016. There is also the argument that swing states pull too much weight, and that the general populace is educated and informed enough in the modern age to make a good decision. The electoral college encourages the existence of “red” and “blue” states, so citizens of the minority party may be reluctant to vote, claiming their votes will be insignificant. Eliza Strong, another REV senior, says “The winner take all system in the electoral college kind of takes the democracy part of voting away from us. I think it is especially unfair to those who, for example, are republicans in a largely democratic state, or democrats in largely republican states. It probably makes these individuals feel as if their vote does not make any difference.”

Despite the arguments for and against the electoral college, it is still important for all citizens to vote their conscience and exercise their liberties. Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best when he said, “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”

Despite winning the popular vote in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in electoral votes as displayed on the electoral map above. (Courtesy of Business Insider)

2 thoughts on “How do we elect our president? Explaining the Electoral College

  1. Very informative and relevant to current events, it really helps create an understanding of the electoral college!

  2. A great article, which helps people understand how the election works! The picture is also a plus!

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