What Is the Electoral College, and How Does It Work?

Throughout American history, there have been five times when a candidate won the presidency without winning the popular vote, including the most recent presidential election. Each time this occurs, criticism of the Electoral College becomes commonplace. However, there are several logical reasons that the Electoral College exists and functions the way it does.

Leslie Gold
4-minute read

What Is the Electoral College?

First off, the Electoral College is a process, not a place.

Five-hundred and thirty eight electors cast votes for president, based on the vote tally in their individual states. Each state has a number of electors equal to the number of congresspeople and senators from their state. For example, Connecticut has two Senators plus five congressional districts for a total of seven electoral votes. California has two senators plus 53 congresspeople for a total of 55 electoral votes. In this way, electoral votes are distributed roughly by population. Add in Washington D.C and you get a total of 538 electors. To win the presidency, a candidate must get at least 270 electoral votes. Most states have a jackpot, winner-take-all system, where the top vote-getter in each state will be awarded the total number of electoral votes the state has to give. A few states allocate their electoral votes more proportionately. It's up to each state how to allot  their electoral votes.

Election day is the first Tuesday in November. But the electors don’t meet until January to cast their votes. The final step is the certification of the electoral votes in congress in January.

In certain states, electors are permitted to cast their vote for someone other than the top vote-getter in their state. In practice, this happens very rarely, but when it does, these electors are often called ‘faithless electors. In 2016, a total of seven electors went ‘faithless’ and cast a deviant vote: two against the Republican candidate, and five against the Democratic candidate.

See Also: The Science Behind How Your Vote Is Counted

Why Was the Electoral College Created?

The Founding Fathers created the Electoral College system when they drafted the Constitution. Based on the amount of language they devoted to it in both the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, the idea was given careful thought and intended to be a compromise. First, it was a compromise between having a specialized bodyn such as Congress, pick the president or having the people decide the presidency directly. The Founders debated back and forth whether the president should be picked by a certain body of wise men (presumably Congress) or a raw vote. They concluded that allowing the people to choose their own leader without any further stopgap could open the door for a charismatic tyrant to manipulate the election. The extra layer of the Electoral College provided a curb in case the people elected a criminal or a traitor.