A simplified explanation of the Electoral College


As the United States continues to wait for the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, we’re all tracking the Electoral College count. But what is the Electoral College, anyway?

Our system doesn’t seem so complicated: We cast our votes for a candidate. Why isn’t the outcome based on the popular vote? Why do we even need the Electoral College? And where did it come from?

Here’s a quick primer on the Electoral College and how it figures in our elections every four years.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

What Is The Electoral College?

The Electoral College is a system put into place by our founding fathers following the American Revolution. As part of the U.S. Constitution — Article II, Section 1, Clause 2, to be precise — the government set up a system of electors who would act as the representatives for the voters in each state. The electors cast the final vote for the country’s president.

So when you vote for president, you’re technically voting for an elector to cast an electoral vote for you.

How Many Electors Are In The Electoral College System?

There are a total of 538 total electors in the Electoral College. Each state gets an elector for each representative they have in Congress — both senators plus every House member.

This is known as an indirect popular election. Our founding fathers came up with this system, in part, to help states with a smaller population still have a sense that their voices were equally valued compared to larger states with more people.

Other framers felt that such a decision as important as a nation’s president shouldn’t be left up to a simple majority vote. They thought there should be a buffer between the people and the direct decision to the presidency.

AP Photo/Mark Tenally

How Many Electors Does A Candidate Need To Win The Presidency?

The magic number for any presidential candidate is 270 electors to win the election. These are the numbers every news outlet talks about throughout election night (and into the days that follow). It’s a simple majority: divide the 538 total electors by two, then add one for the majority.

How Do States Allocate Electors?

Most states have a winner take all policy. If the candidate wins the overall popular vote in the state, he or she wins all of that state’s electoral votes. There are two exceptions to this rule: Maine and Nebraska. These states allocate two electoral votes for the state’s winner of the popular vote, plus one electoral vote for the winner of the popular vote in each Congressional district, according to 270 to Win.

The winner-take-all system means that it doesn’t matter if a candidate wins a commanding lead in a state or just barely squeaks into the majority. That candidate gets all of the electoral votes for the state regardless — which is how we’ve ended up with candidates who won the Electoral College but not the popular vote.


How Many Times Has A Candidate Won The Electoral College But Lost The Popular Vote?

It’s happened five times in our history:

  • 1824: John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson in the Electoral College
  • 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden
  • 1888: Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland
  • 2000: George W. Bush defeated Al Gore
  • 2016: Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton

Once A Candidate Reaches 270 Electoral Votes, Is The Election Over?

No. Here’s the even crazier part of our Electoral College system: Even after every single voter’s ballot is counted, the presidential election is not officially over. That doesn’t happen until the electors cast their ballots, which will happen this year on Dec. 14.

That’s because our constitution mandates that “on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the electors meet in their respective States to cast their votes for President and Vice President of the United States.”

Can We Change The Electoral College?

The only way to change our presidential election process is through a constitutional amendment — which is difficult to do. This is why some opponents of the Electoral College system have come up with a workaround — the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. When a state joins the compact, it agrees to cast its electoral votes for whichever candidate wins the national popular vote, thus undercutting the Electoral College. Fifteen states have joined the compact; a 16th, Colorado, voted on whether to join the compact on the 2020 ballot, but the results weren’t in at publication time.

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About the Author
Marie Rossiter
Marie is a freelance writer and content creator with more than 20 years of experience in journalism. She lives in southwest Ohio with her husband and is almost a full-fledged empty nest mom of two daughters. She loves music, reading, word games, and Walt Disney World. Visit Scripps News to see more of Marie's work.

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