Everything You Need to Know About the Electoral College
In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency through the electoral college despite losing the popular vote, prompting many voters to ask what exactly is the Electoral College and why was it created?
The Electoral College is made up of electors from each US state who ultimately decide who the next president is. There are 538 electors in total, with a minimum of 270 electoral votes needed to win an election.
The number of electors in each state varies depending on the number of congressional representatives in a given state and its two senators. For example, Texas has 38 electors or electoral votes because it has 36 representatives and 2 senators. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, has 18 representatives and 2 senators, giving the battleground state 20 electoral votes.
Electoral votes, however, are not representative of a state’s population and are therefore unequally distributed. Smaller states are often overrepresented due to a mandatory minimum of three electoral votes per state, while larger states are underrepresented.
In other words, the number of electoral votes in a state is not proportionate to the overall population. This makes voters in smaller states much more influential in the outcome of an election than voters in larger states.
The Electoral College mostly operates on a winner-take-all system. Electors vote for the candidate who wins the majority of votes in a given state, no matter how small the margin. This means that, with the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, all of a state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who has the most popular votes, whether that lead is by 1% or 60%.
This is why winning the electoral vote in swing states has become crucial, with both candidates vying for just enough of the electorate.
With seven swing states — Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—accounting for 119 electoral votes this election cycle, swing states could quite literally decide the election.
Only two presidents in modern American history have won the presidency despite losing the popular vote: George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. The last president to lose the popular vote prior to the contested 2000 election was Benjamin Harrison in 1888. And of the five presidents who lost the popular vote but won the election, four were Republicans.
This has caused many Americans to question the need for the Electoral College. According to a Gallup poll, 61% of Americans support abolishing the Electoral College and replacing it with a popular vote system.
To many, the Electoral College gives certain states an unfair advantage and is often not representative of a state’s population. A popular vote system, on the other hand, would ensure that the candidate with the most votes wins the election.
In addition to the discrepancies the Electoral College creates, the basis on which it was founded is more troubling than some may realize.
The Electoral College was essentially created to give southern states an advantage over northern states in the general election. Enslaved people accounted for a large portion of the population in the South, and while they couldn’t vote, they were counted as three-fifths of a person in the census, giving southern states more congressional representation.
Since the number of electors equals the number of representatives and senators in each state, southern states had more electoral votes due to the Three-fifths Compromise.
This gave southern states much more influence in the outcome of a presidential election. And it showed. For 32 of the first 36 years since the Constitution was ratified, the presidency was occupied by slave owners from Virginia, the most populous state at the time.
While the Three-Fifths Compromise’s influence on electoral votes is thankfully no longer an issue today, the Electoral College still has some valid flaws that impact our current elections. It still gives certain people and certain states more power to pick the president.
Regardless of which party or candidate wins the presidency in 2020, the Electoral College will still be the deciding factor.
Moving forward, we must decide whether or not we want that to continue to be the case. Does this system still work for the majority of Americans? Did it ever? And if not, then for whom?