What Is the Electoral College? - Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:43 History
  • 1:17 How it Works
  • 3:05 Results
  • 3:32 Complications
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Every four years, millions of Americans vote for who will become president. Did you know they are not actually voting for the president, but for electors in the Electoral College? Learn more about what the Electoral College is and how it came to be.


The U.S. Constitution does not support the direct election of the president by the people. Instead, Americans indirectly elect the president through the Electoral College, a group of presidential electors whose number is assigned to each state by the Constitution. Under the Constitution, each state will appoint electors to vote for a candidate for president. Each state has a specific list of presidential candidates on the ballot from which voters can choose. Voters cast their ballot for a candidate, but those voters are actually electing electors to vote for the president on the voters' behalf. Each political party in each state will appoint electors to cast votes on their behalf if their candidate wins that state or district's popular vote.


The Founding Fathers had many different ideas about how to elect the president. The two most popular ideas, according to James Madison's journal, were to allow either the American citizens or the federal legislature to elect the president. Opponents of the direct election by the people feared that citizens would be uninformed and biased toward candidates from their own state. Opponents of the legislature electing the president worried that the president would be a 'creature of the legislature,' focusing on keeping the legislature satisfied for reelection. The founders ended up agreeing on a compromise.

How it Works

So, how does it work today? There are 538 total electors in the Electoral College. To win the presidency, a candidate needs a simple majority, which equals 270 electoral votes. Forty-eight states have a winner-take-all system, meaning that the candidate that wins the simple majority of the popular vote for that state wins all the electoral votes for that state. Nebraska and Maine are the two exceptions to that rule. Those states award electoral votes based on the popular vote for each of the state's congressional districts.

Each state has the same number of electoral votes as they have total representation in Congress. Arkansas, with two senators and four representatives, has six total electors in the Electoral College. California, with two senators and 53 representatives, has 55 total electors in the Electoral College. The 23rd Amendment provided that Washington, D.C., though not a state, would receive electoral votes equal to the least populated state. That number is currently three. Therefore, 435 total members in the U.S. House of Representatives + 100 total members in the U.S. Senate + 3 electoral votes for Washington, D.C. = 538 total electoral votes.

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