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Everything You Need to Know About the Electoral College

Contrary to what you may think, when you go to the polls on voting day you’re not actually selecting the next president of the United States. That’s because of a voting system established in the U.S. Constitution known as the Electoral College, which, according to my own polling of current college students and recent grads, the inner workings of which 50 percent of people aren’t very familiar with. Do you know how many elecotrates make up the College? If you want to brush up on your knowledge before heading to the polls, here’s the full breakdown of the electoral system that ultimately decides who our next president will be.

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So how does the Electoral College work?

As USA.gov explains, when you go to the polls this November, you’re actually voting for your state’s share of the 538 electorates. Your state’s electors will then cast their vote on the next president. Before every general election, the states’ political parties nominate these electors. These electors meet in their states and vote for the president and vice president. Afterwards, these votes are counted by the President of the Senate in a joint session of congress to decide the winner.

It was intended as a compromise when the US was founded

The Electoral College is based on the population of the country’s states, at the time of its inception. According to Jamil Scott, PhD, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, the framers of the constitution heavily debated how our electoral system should work. 

“There was a big concern here when we were just coming out of a monarchy, and the Founding Fathers were thinking, ‘We don’t want someone at the helm who’s too powerful, but we also don’t trust people to make the best decisions,’” Scott says. 

As a compromise, the founders set up the Electoral College in the 12th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to find some middle ground between the population’s vote and congress’s, 

It’s based on the population of each state

As Scott describes, the number of electors for each state depends on the states’ congressional representatives, plus the two senators from each state. Since congressional representation is designed to be based on population, larger, more populous states have more electors while smaller states, or states with fewer people, receive less.

‘“There are different numbers of electors by the state,” Scott says. “So California has a different number than Maine, [which] has a different number from Rhode Island.” You can check out how many electoral votes your state gets and create your own electoral map using 270toWin’s interactive map.

The Electoral College vote is not the same as the popular vote

As results come in on election day, there are two different totals: the popular vote and the (projected) electoral vote. As the Library of Congress explains, the popular vote is which candidate received the most votes in total across the United States. 

This tally can sometimes be different from the Electoral College vote, which actually doesn’t take place until December. In 2016, The New York Times reported that President Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by over 2.8 million votes, but won the Electoral College vote by 74 votes.

According to Scott, this is due to the fact that it comes down to how many votes a state has to give. “It’s about the count on the Electoral College side – that matters as well, not just the number of people who turned out for a particular candidate,” Scott says. 

After you cast your ballot for president, your vote goes to a statewide tally. In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner is supposed to get all of the electoral votes for that state, but Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system. However, the Constitution doesn’t require electors to follow their state’s popular vote, though many state laws do. This means that in some states, electors do have the ability to challenge the vote and cast their’s for a candidate that didn’t win the state. 

A candidate needs the vote of at least 270 electors—more than half of all electors—to win the presidential election.

Which is pretty controversial today 

The Electoral College remains a hot button topic when it comes to election cycles. As Scott explains, critics of the system argue that it doesn’t accurately represent the votes of the American people by putting a handful of competitive states’ votes above others.

“It makes the Electoral College controversial because candidates are incentivized to spend more time in certain states,” Scott says, “So it assumes that people are already on their side, or there are states that we just don’t have to pay attention to.” 

Of the respondents to my poll, only 38 percent were satisfied with the current electoral college system, but, altering the system would require a constitutional amendment. Nora Ramos, a public health major at The University of New England, has mixed emotions about the Electoral College. 

“I think that the Electoral College is outdated and I am open to changing the current system, however, there is an argument to be made for not relying solely on the popular vote,” Nora says. “You risk the chance of having the most urban or populated states deciding the fate of the country.” 

Whether you agree with the system or not, the Electoral College is a complicated, yet important process that defines a candidate’s journey to the White House. While you’re checking out how to vote absentee and identifying the issues that you value this November, it’s important to realize that your vote makes an impact on the electorates in your state. By voting and staying informed, you are playing a crucial role in our democratic process.

Bethany Irvine

Georgetown '21

Bethany is a second year graduate student based in Washington D.C. When she's not enjoying the sights and sounds of downtown D.C. she's busy studying the intersection between politics and communication.
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