Direct vs. Indirect Elections

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  • 0:02 Who Won?
  • 0:49 The Popular Vote
  • 1:31 The Electoral College
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we explore the difference between indirect and direct elections. You will gain insight about what is meant by the Electoral College when you vote for president and how this differs from a popular vote.

Who Won?

In the 2000 United States presidential election, Democrat Al Gore received 48.38% of the popular vote, while Republican George W. Bush received 47.87%. Who won this election and became President of the United States? If you said George W. Bush, you're right! Yet, you might be wondering, 'How is it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but not actually become president?'

In this lesson, we'll look at indirect elections, such as when we vote for president, compared with direct elections. By the end, you'll better understand how a candidate can win the popular vote but may or may not become president as a result.

The Popular Vote

Unlike in the presidential election, when you vote for your state representative, the total number of votes will determine the winner of the election. The votes cast directly by citizens is known as the popular vote, referring to the actual votes of the people. So, if you and five million of your neighbors vote for a particular candidate and that is the most votes that any candidate receives, you have yourself a winner.

This is a type of direct election in which the popular vote directly determines the outcome of an election. When you cast your ballot and that ballot is tallied up with others, this directly determines the election with no intermediary or other calculations necessary.

The Electoral College

The process to elect the president, on the other hand, is an example of an indirect election, one in which an intermediary body, elected by the people, is responsible for the outcome of an election. The Electoral College of the United States is an example of the intermediary group that determines the winner.

The Electoral College isn't a college at all, really. It's a group of people known as electors, 538 to be exact. Each state is represented by a specific number of electors. The amount of electors matches the amount of members that represent that state in Congress. So, in the case of Massachusetts, which currently has 11 total delegates to Congress (that's 2 senators and 9 representatives), the state would get 11 Electoral College votes. In the case of Wyoming, which has a smaller population, they'll get 3 votes since they have 2 senators and 1 representative.

When you place your vote for a president, it helps determine who the electors will vote to elect on your behalf. The candidate that reaches a majority of 270 or more electoral votes will actually become president.

Your vote still matters a great deal even in an indirect election because it factors into the way that electors will vote. In most cases, the outcome of the Electoral College is the same as the popular vote, but on a handful of rare occasions, it's not worked out this way. In the case of the 2000 election, Gore received 266 electoral votes, and Bush received 271, which made Bush the winner, even though the popular vote was in favor of Gore.

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