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

This check on raw democracy is deliberately infused into other aspects of our government. The Supreme Court, for example, can throw out a law that is deemed unconstitutional, even if a majority of the people in the country support it.

This check on raw democracy is deliberately infused into other aspects of our government. 

Second, the Electoral College is also a compromise between a state-based government and a population-based government, which is the same reason we have a House of Representatives and a Senate. At the time, the union was one of 13 individual states. There was no guarantee they would or could function as a cohesive whole. The Founders were worried that big states with big populations would have too much influence on national elections. Smaller states were worried that they would have no effect at all. Southern states with slaves who couldn't vote were worried that the Northern states would have all the influence. The Electoral College was devised to force candidates to attract broader support by forcing them to win the vote in multiple states.

How Does the Electoral College Work Now?

Despite criticism, the Electoral College works more or less as intended.

If the popular vote were the only decider, candidates would campaign in just a small number of big cities in a handful of states and ignore the rest of the country.  In America today, four or five states would matter in a popular election and citizens in other locations  would be out of luck. In the last election, the Republican candidate won the electoral college with 304 electoral votes, but the Democratic candidate won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes. However, the margin in the popular vote came almost entirely from a single state: California. Remove that one state and the popular vote advantage all but disappears. This is what the Founders were looking avoid, that a single state could, in effect, hijack a national election.

What’s Wrong With the Popular Vote?

If a candidate only had to win the pure popular vote, he or she could conceivably do so by promising free mass transit or some other small basket of issues that pertain only to high-population urban areas. The concern of people who live in the suburbs or rural areas could be ignored. Issues that affect farmers, ranchers, energy producers, factory workers, and other groups who typically do not live in high population cities would not be heard or addressed. The Electoral College system was designed to ensure that presidents would have to get support from a diverse array of people around the country.

A pure popular vote involving multiple candidates could produce a president who got a very small slice of the total vote. Requiring that a candidate hit the electoral threshold of 270 avoids that outcome.  

The Electoral College may be imperfect, but any other system would likely have its own set of problems. For over 200 years, the Electoral College has helped produce a stable transfer of power in the United States. Any system that has served our nation well for centuries should be reassessed only with great care.


Leslie Gold is a radio talk show host, entreprenuer and communicator. She has been a recurring guest host on the Fox News Radio Network, discussing government, politics and it’s effect on commerce and individual rights for the last 6 years. Prior to that she headlined the highly rated “The Radiochick Show” in NYC and syndicated markets for 10 years. She is a multiple industry award winner and has been recognized and one of the top radio hosts in the U.S.  Leslie has also been seen as a guest commentator on CNN, Fox News, Fox Business News, MSNBC, Good Day NY and ABC television. Leslie holds her MBA from the Harvard Business School and graduated from Syracuse University with an undergraduate degree in management.