Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Mrs. Hall's Class from Arlington, VA. Mrs. Hall's Class Wonders, “How does the electoral college work?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Mrs. Hall's Class!
Every four years, Americans head to the voting booth to cast their votes for their choice for President of the United States. As the election draws near, the news is filled with mentions of the Electoral College. What's the deal with that?
Is it a real college? If so, where is it? Do they even have a football team? As it turns out, the answers to those questions are no, everywhere, and certainly not!
The Electoral College is the brainchild of the founders of the United States. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, they had to devise a system of electing a chief executive. They had several options to choose from, including allowing the people to choose (a direct popular vote), allowing the states to choose, or allowing Congress to choose.
They feared that a direct popular vote would allow the people to be manipulated by a savvy candidate. They also wanted to allow the states to have some influence, while keeping the legislative and executive branches separated as much as possible. The Electoral College represents a compromise between all of the possible approaches.
Today, when people cast their votes for President of the United States, they are in reality voting for a slate of presidential electors instead. Each state (and the District of Columbia) has its own electors and, collectively, they're known as the Electoral College.
It is this group of electors that actually votes and elects the President. How do they know for whom to vote? In most states, they have to vote for whichever candidate wins the popular vote in their state. Some states do not require this by law, but electors are nonetheless "pledged" to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote even if they're not legally bound to do so.
Two states—Maine and Nebraska—allow electors to be split between candidates based upon the popular vote within congressional districts. This is different than all the others states, which have a "winner takes all" system that awards all electors to whichever candidate wins the majority of the total popular vote within the state.
Each state has a number of electors equal to their congressional representation (the number of Senators and Representatives the state has). This means that several states have only three electors, while the most populous state — California — has 55 electors. Electors are usually chosen by political parties or other groups within each state.
In total, there are 538 electors. A majority of electors—270—is required to win the election. If no candidate receives at least 270 electoral votes, then the House of Representatives chooses the President and the Senate chooses the Vice President.
Many people find the Electoral College system unnecessarily quirky. After all, it allows for the possibility that one candidate would win the majority of the popular vote across the nation, and yet still lose the election if another candidate wins the electoral vote. This has happened on more than one occasion. It led to George W. Bush's election over Al Gore in 2000. Most recently, in 2016, Donald Trump won the electoral vote and became President despite the fact that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote by nearly three million votes.
Although these results led many people to call for Electoral College reform or a change to a direct popular vote system, no major changes have yet been made to the system. The Electoral College remains the unique and quirky way we elect the President of the United States.