The Electoral College

Explaining our voting system and its flaws


Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Annabelle Akiyama, Writer

The Electoral College is part of the complicated and widely disputed American voting system, and it’s something that many do not understand. To start off, it’s not an actual college- it’s the way that we elect our presidents.


The Electoral College was invented by Alexander Hamilton, and its process begins after the primaries and caucuses. There are 538 total electoral votes in the Electoral College, meant to represent the 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and the 3 electors from the District of Columbia. The number of electoral votes in each state, and thus electors in each state, is determined by the state’s population. The US Census plays a key role in recording our population, so the Census’s data is used to divvy up the votes. Each state gets at least 3 electoral votes, no matter its population.


You might think that you’re voting for a presidential candidate when you cast your ballot, but in reality you’re actually voting for an elector. Their names can appear underneath the name of the presidential candidate on the ballot, depending on your state. An elector is chosen by their political party, and can be picked to be an elector as a way to honor their contributions to the party. An elector cannot be a Senator, Representative, or somebody who holds “an Office of Trust or Profit” under the United States.


Electors each have one vote to cast for their nomination for President of the United States. Normally, the electors will vote for the popular vote’s winner in their state, and all the electoral votes in a state are usually given to the one popular candidate, in a winner-take-all system. The only states that do not abide by this system are Maine and Nebraska.*


Once in a while, an elector will not vote for the popular candidate. These electors are called “faithless electors,” and in some states there are laws against them. Faithless electors could have to pay a fine, and in some states their vote will not be counted, with the faithless vote resulting in their replacement. In other states, it’s a 4th degree felony, but not all states will punish the elector or discount the vote. However, faithless votes are not very common, with only 90 faithless votes being cast out of 23,507 electoral votes.


Defenders of the college say that the system lets the electors filter the public’s opinions- that they stop them from making a poor decision. They also say that the college forces candidates to pay attention to the more rural areas, which they might have ignored otherwise. The Electoral College’s defenders say that it prevents only highly populated states and cities from deciding our president, and claim that the college prevents chaos.


However, there are many criticisms for the Electoral College, and one is that many say it blocks direct democracy. Its opposers argue that it stops Americans from actually voting for a president, since we’re voting for an elector. They also say that it makes millions of votes inconsequential, since winning a state by a small margin can give a candidate all of its electoral votes. Another argument is that the college also makes it so that candidates largely ignore states with less votes, and that faithless elector’s votes can count in some states. Finally, they argue it doesn’t always let the most popular presidential candidate win the presidency, and since every state is guaranteed 3 electoral votes, it can give an unfair amount of power to smaller, less populated states.


Overall, the Electoral College is a consequential and controversial system, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. While there are movements against it, they’re largely in Democratic states, and certain states aren’t expected to join it. The Electoral College has been around for hundreds of years, and we’re still seeing it take effect today. 


*Maine and Nebraska each have multiple congressional districts, so each district gets an electoral vote for the most popular candidate in the district. Meanwhile, the rest of the electoral votes go to the most popular statewide candidate.