The Electoral College Explained

Every four years during a Presidential election, the term Electoral College resurfaces. This 233-year-old system of selecting our nation’s next President is complicated, unpopular, and often highly contentious yet is something that, as voters, we should all comprehend.

Created in 1787, the Electoral College serves as a temporary voting body utilized specifically during Presidential elections. Our Founding Fathers arrived at this indirect Presidential selection process as a compromise. They were uncomfortable putting such a crucial decision squarely in the hands of the American people and didn’t want the Congress to possess such power. The Electoral College was designed to mitigate either of these two options, instead blending them into one hybrid voting system.

How Electoral Votes Are Assigned

The total number of electoral votes is 538. This is based upon the total number of members in Congress. There are 435 members in the House of representatives and 100 members in the Senate. To appease the Southern states, which had lower populations than Northern states, the Founding Fathers divided the 100 Senate electoral votes equally among all 50 states. The remaining 435 votes were distributed based on the number of Congressional Districts in each state, which is determined by the Census population. The District of Columbia gets three electoral votes, arriving at the total of 538.

Each state’s electoral voters are chosen by political parties. Each party selects a slate of individuals who pledge to stand as electors for that party’s candidate. In 32 states (of which California is one) plus D.C., there are laws requiring electors to adhere to their pledge to vote for their party’s candidate. Some electors choose to break this pledge, earning the moniker “faithless” as a result. In the 2016 election, there were seven such “faithless” voters and another seven in the 20th Century. In July 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that electors who go against this pledge can be penalized or removed from their position. The remaining 18 states have unpledged electors, meaning they are technically able to vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. Though allowed, this is an uncommon practice: the last time this occurred was in 1960 in Mississippi and Alabama in an attempt to block John F. Kennedy from winning the Presidency.

Of the 50 states, 48 plus the District of Columbia, utilize a Winner Take All process for assigning electoral votes. In essence, this means that the electoral slate of the candidate who wins the popular vote receives all of the electoral votes in that state. None of the other political slates are able to cast votes.

How the Electoral Voting Process Works

When we as individual voters cast our ballots for a candidate, we are, in reality, voting for your candidate’s electors. Although the media will announce a winner on election night, and the losing party will generally concede the race, members of the Electoral College don’t cast their official votes until later. States continue to gather and certify ballots, tallying results for a month or more. Once the voter information has been attained, each state submits its formal voting information to the National Archives & Records Administration, the body that administers the Electoral College.

The votes are then formally counted in a joint session of Congress, which in the upcoming election, is scheduled to be held on December 14th. Presided over by the sitting Vice President, who serves as the President of the Senate, each state’s vote is opened and read aloud. The votes are passed onto two tellers, one from each Chamber, who tabulate the votes and track the Electoral College votes. When a candidate has achieved a majority of 270 or more votes, the Vice President pronounces them the victor.

Members of Congress can object to individual elector’s returns or those of the states in writing, which are then debated and either accepted or rejected. This has occurred twice, once in 1969 and again in 2005, both of which failed.

Pros & Cons of the Electoral College

The Electoral College is hotly contested, with many claiming it is an antiquated method that affords too much power to smaller and less populated states. For example, Wyoming has three electoral votes and California has 55. In the 2016 election, Wyoming had one electoral vote for every 195,000 people while California has one electoral vote for every 712,000 people. This tips the scales dramatically, giving Wyoming residents almost four times the voting power as people living in California. Today, there is one voting member of the Electoral College for every 747,000 Americans, three times the ratio that existed at the inception of this system. For more information on the ranking of voting power by state, visit

Critics also don’t favor the Winner Takes All method, stating that it is flies in the face of the “one person, one vote” democratic ideal and overrides the preferences of a substantial number of state’s voting population. The Winner Takes All process coupled with the voting weight of many less populated states are factors resulting in candidates who’ve received the popular vote not being elected President. This has happened five times in history in the very early years of our nation, 1824, 1876, 1888, and then over a century later in 2000 (Gore versus Bush) and 2016.

Those who stand behind the Electoral College believe it offers a necessary “power check” of national government. Proponents claim it averts potential election chaos by deterring recounts, and, in support of the weighted votes in states with lower populations, assert that the system encourages candidates to campaign outside of populous urban areas.

Should It Stay or Should It Go?

In a March 2020 poll conducted by Pew Research, 58% of adults in the United States were in favor of having Presidential candidates chosen by the popular vote rather than the Electoral College. An overwhelming percentage of that 58% were members of the Democratic party, while significantly less registered as Republic favor doing away with the century’s old electoral system.

Whatever your thoughts about this process, it appears here to stay, at least in some form. There have been over 700 proposals to abolish or reform this system in the past two centuries. One reform proposal, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is designed to keep the Electoral College in place while guaranteeing the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It has gotten the most traction, with 15 states and D.C. ratifying the system as of October 2020, but it still requires an additional 74 electoral votes to be officially enacted. Ultimately, even if the Compact is accepted by the majority of states, it would still require an amendment to the Constitution to make any changes official.

Despite the fact that as a voter in California, our votes don’t carry the same weight as residents on many other states, voting is still a vital civic responsibility. If you have already cast your ballot, good for you! If not, you have until November 3rd to vote in person, mail your ballot (make sure it is postmarked!), or drop your ballot off by 8pm on November 3rd at one of the many official drop off locations in Santa Clara County and Santa Cruz County. Be sure to sign and date the back of your ballot envelope to ensure it is accepted.

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