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The Electoral College: Definition & Process

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  • 0:02 Electoral College
  • 0:50 Electors and Votes
  • 2:04 Electoral College Votes
  • 4:03 Problems with the…
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

In the U.S., our presidential elections are decided using the Electoral College. The system is meant to balance election power between the federal and state governments. This lesson explains what the Electoral College is and how it works.

Electoral College

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 produced a new structure for our government. The Twelfth Amendment's Electoral College resulted from a compromise between the convention's delegates. They could not agree on whether Congress or the people should select the president.

The Electoral College is an indirect system for electing the United States president using Electoral College votes. Its goal is to divide the power of selection between Congress and the people and allow a balance between federal and state powers in keeping with federalism. It was a controversial method for electing a president when it was first adopted and remains the subject of much debate to this day.

Electors and Votes

In the U.S., voters do not directly vote for a presidential candidate. Instead, the system is designed so that a slate of electors votes on behalf of each state. The electors are representatives of each state and members of the Electoral College. They are usually selected at state party conventions and are typically political party leaders. Each elector receives one Electoral College vote.

Theoretically, each elector casts his or her vote on behalf of the population of his or her state. Practically speaking, however, almost all states use a winner-takes-all method. In other words, the presidential candidate with the most national popular votes in that state wins all of that state's Electoral College votes. The popular vote is the sum of all votes cast in a particular state.

Only Nebraska and Maine use a proportional system. Their Electoral College votes can be split because those two states award electoral votes according to the percentage of the popular vote a candidate received.

Electoral College Process

There are currently 538 total Electoral College votes. Of these, 100 votes represent our U.S. senators. Remember that there are two U.S. senators from each of our 50 states. The remaining 438 votes are divided between our congressional districts, including the District of Columbia. Each of our 435 congressional districts has one vote, and the District of Columbia has three votes.

So, the number of Electoral College votes a state has is dependent on how many congressional districts that state has. Congressional districts are allocated based on the National Census, or population of that state. For example, the state of New York is densely populated. It has 29 Electoral College votes. Alaska's population is relatively sparse. It has three Electoral College votes.

Let's look at an example. Let's say Smith and Doe are our presidential candidates. Smith wins the popular vote in New York because more New Yorkers voted for Smith than for Doe. Smith is therefore allocated all 29 of New York's Electoral College votes. Doe wins the popular vote in Alaska. He's therefore allocated all three of Alaska's Electoral College votes. For a candidate to be elected president, he or she must win at least 270 Electoral College votes.

So far, the Electoral College has always produced a president. However, if no candidate receives 270 Electoral College votes, the House of Representatives will decide the election. Each state receives one vote.

Problems with the Electoral College

Now let's take a quick look at the main criticism of the Electoral College. Notice that it's possible for a candidate to win the presidency without winning the national popular vote.

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