Politics on Point: Explaining the Electoral College

Did you know that the electoral college, not the public, is responsible for choosing the President of the United States? Nick explains that how and why this happens was determined by the Founding Fathers. 

Read the Script:

[Nick] Every four years, millions of Americans flock to the polls to select their next Commander-in-Chief. Each citizen gets one vote, the votes are tallied, and a winner is declared. Uhhhh, actually…NOPE. In our democracy, it’s not that simple. There’s one more step between the votes cast by citizens and a new president. And that’s the electoral college.

The electoral college is a group of people representing the states of the US, who cast the votes that officially elect the president. The individual people in the electoral college are called “electors.” There are 538 total electors in the United States: one for every state senator and state representative, plus three for Washington D.C. In Ohio since we have two senators and 16 state representatives, we have 18 electors.

Anyone who can vote can be an elector, but usually the political parties in each state use the position of elector to recognize citizens with strong ties to their party. When voters cast their ballots, they think they’re voting for a candidate, but they’re actually voting for electors in their state that are in support of that candidate. The electors then cast their vote for president based on the voters.

In most states, including Ohio, there is a “winner take all” policy. This means that whichever candidate gets the most votes in the state is who all of the electors will vote for – even if the margin of victory is very slim. Like in our last election when Barack Obama carried the state of Florida with a margin of .88%. In that case, Obama still won all 29 electoral votes.

It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency – that’s the majority of the 538 total electors. Every presidential election comes down to the electoral college’s votes. Most of the time, this aligns with the votes of individual citizens -- called the popular vote – but, four times in our history, presidents have been elected without winning the popular vote. This happened most recently in 2000 when George W. Bush was elected president despite his opponent Al Gore receiving the most votes.

This process seems sort of anti-democratic, right? So who’s to blame for this system? Actually, it was our founding fathers…you know, the guys that basically invented the United States. When they were writing up the Constitution they had to figure out for the first time how the president would be chosen. They didn’t think it was fair for Congress decide who would be the next leader of the country, but they also weren’t sure that the general public should have that job either. The Electoral College was their compromise.

It may seem like a weird way of doing something as important as electing the next president -- and really it is. The United States is the only democracy where the leader is chosen indirectly like this. Most other countries have direct elections where the people decide who they want as president or semi-direct elections where a governing body elects the president. Some people think that we should do away with the electoral college, but it’s what the founding fathers chose and, for now, that’s how it’s going to stay.

Instructional Links

Website/Video:  The Electoral Decoder http://www.pbseduelectioncentral.com/electoral-decoder

Website: National Archives and Record Administration:  U.S. Electoral College https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/about.html


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