What Is The Electoral College & Why Do We Use It?

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington, DC.
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As the United States heads to the polls today and decides a winner in the 2020 presidential election, observers from around the world may be confused by an electoral process that sometimes sees the winner of the popular vote not ascend to the presidency. That is because Americans do not directly vote for the president on Election Day, but instead vote for a group of representatives that make up the electoral college, according to usa.gov. These people meet a few weeks after the votes are counted to cast their votes and officially decide who will be the country’s next president.

Each state receives a number of electors generally proportional to the size of their population, determined by the number of elected representatives in Congress. This means that while the highly populated states get the largest amount of electoral votes, smaller states with sparse populations still get an outsized representation in presidential elections with their minimum of three electors.

States generally give their electoral college votes to the candidate who receives the plurality of votes cast on Election Day. Other than Nebraska and Maine, each state awards all of their electors to whomever wins, regardless of the margin of victory. This means 50.1 percent of the vote means as much as a landslide. This raises the importance of “swing states” that could vote either way and see much more focus from campaigns.

There are a total of 538 representatives in the electoral college, with 270 required by a candidate to secure the presidency. With two parties dominating modern American politics, it is unlikely that no one will pass that threshold. However, it has happened before, with the 1824 election seeing the vote split four ways before the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as the country’s sixth president, as reported by BBC.


The Electoral College Dates Back To The Signing Of The Constitution

Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, center, carries a ballot box containing the 12 Massachusetts electoral votes for Vice President Al Gore as he is led by Sergeant-at Arms Michael Rea, right, during the Electoral College voting at the Statehouse December 18, 2000 in Boston
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When the United States Constitution was written in 1787, voting in the modern sense was unimaginable. With a national popular vote almost impossible and the unpopularity of designating the choice to the lawmakers in Washington, D.C., the creation of the electoral college that saw each state choose their electors was seen as a compromise.

The decision was popular with smaller states, as it gave them more representation than a nationwide popular vote. It was also the preferred option by the southern, slave-owning states. While slaves were not allowed to vote, they were counted as 3/5 of a person in the United States Census, giving those states a larger proportion of the electors and stronger influence.


It Is Becoming More Common For The Winning Presidential Candidate To Lose The Popular Vote

Congressional clerks pass the Electoral College certificate from the state of Ohio while unsealing and organizing all the votes from the 50 states in the House of Representatives chamber at the U.S. Capitol January 4, 2013 in Washington, DC.
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A candidate has only ascended to the White House without winning the popular vote five times since the vote was recorded. However, two of the last five elections have seen such a result arise. The first three occurrences were in the nineteenth century, with Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888 joining the aforementioned victory by John Quincy Adams in 1824.

More than a century later, George W. Bush won 271 electoral college votes in 2000 while his opponent Al Gore received 500,000 more votes from the general public. The deficit between the electoral college and popular vote was expanded by even more in 2016, when Donald Trump secured a clear victory through the electoral college despite receiving 3 million fewer votes.