The Electoral College: How it Impacts Elections in the Modern Era

By Molly Black

If you hadn't heard, the 2020 Presidential election is approaching. Media outlets have inundated the public with continuous analysis and coverage of the upcoming election. Citizens are urged to exercise their democratic right and vote, a process of mailing in a ballot or going to a polling station to cast your vote for one candidate or another. With each vote, a tally is added behind a candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins, or so logic would dictate. Here comes the Electoral College.

You have heard of the Electoral College, the mysterious entity which declares the outcome of our 4-year cycle of presidential elections. News coverage in recent years has focused on calls for reform of the Electoral College with the outcome of the 2016 presidential election a glaring example where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million yet lost the election. Why did this happen and how?

To answer this question, we must go back to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. When the young country's leaders were writing the U.S. Constitution there was a general distrust for popular democracy. The fear was that if a president were elected directly by the people they would have too much power and overwhelm Congress, thus destroying the delicate balance of powers desired between the different branches of government. This fear led the creators of the U.S. Constitution to develop an indirect method of selecting the president, wherein, each state has a number of Electors equal to the state's number of senators and representatives. Meaning, when the public casts its vote for a presidential candidate they are actually selecting their state's Electors who then choose the next president.

The Electoral College is made up of a total of 538 members, one for each U.S. senator and House representative with three additional electors representing the District of Columbia. The number of electoral votes each state receives is equal to the total number of its congressional delegation. Each state is free to determine how to select its own Electors. The U.S. Constitution does not specify the methods for nominating candidates for presidential Electors. It is up to each state to determine how nominees will be selected. The two methods used by states for nomination are by state party convention or by state party committee. Parties generally select loyal members such as local elected officials, party leaders, and party activists. When a voter casts a vote for a candidate for President the vote is actually for the presidential electors who were selected by that candidate's party.

The awarding of electoral votes is done through two different methods. In 48 states and the District of Columbia the “Winner-Take-All" System is used, wherein, the candidate who wins the state popular vote for president will send their party's electors to cast the vote for president. For example, North Carolina has 15 electoral votes. If Joe Biden wins the state's popular vote on November 3, the 15 electors nominated by the Democratic Party in North Carolina will be selected. These 15 people will gather on December 14 to cast their votes for president of the United States.

Maine and Nebraska are the only states that award their electoral votes in a method called the District System. In this system, one electoral vote is awarded to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in each congressional district, and the remaining two electoral votes are awarded to the candidates receiving the most votes statewide.

It is largely from the use of the “Winner-Take-All" System where controversy around the Electoral College emerges. This system used by the majority of the country often guarantees that when the electors cast their votes the minority in each state is disenfranchised. While this approach is intended to empower the voter, it is possible for the president to be chosen by a minority of the popular vote. Such as in 1912, Woodrow Wilson won more than 80 percent of the electoral vote despite barely achieving 41 percent of the popular vote. In the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton similarly only achieved 43 percent of the popular vote but won 70 percent of Electoral College votes. The 2000 election is another example of the imbalance created by this system, and the disputes which can easily arise from it. In 2000 Al Gore led in the popular vote by nearly half million against George W. Bush, but the balance in the Electoral College was close enough that the entire election result came down to the 25 electoral votes from Florida. By the slimmest margins, early results showed the state favoring Bush, but recounts narrowed the gap within thousands. These disputes were settled by the Supreme Court which awarded a 537-vote victory in the state and thus, a majority in the Electoral College, winning Bush the presidency.

With the recent numbers of the 2016 election still fresh in the minds of Americans, the question becomes, how do we fix this? Some have called for a shift toward the Nebraska-Maine District System, which might help balance the Electoral College voting, yet it still allows for the possibility for a presidential candidate to lose the election despite winning the popular vote.

Others have pushed for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College all together, stating that aside from allowing a candidate to win despite losing the popular vote, the system discriminates against minority parties, inflates the value of votes in small states, and encourages candidates to ignore states they believe they cannot win. Supporters of the Electoral College believe it is important to maintain as a connection to the system of government envisioned by the founding fathers. Additionally, supporters of the College believe it is beneficial in forcing candidates to give attention to states with small populations which might otherwise be ignored.

The main argument for the Electoral College is that it maintains political stability, meaning, it has held as the foundation of our voting systems for president since the nation began, and to disrupt this could cause political, social, and cultural chaos. The fear of change and the constitutional barriers that exist in removing the College will likely mean the Electoral College will remain a part of the political system in the United States for a long time to come.


Molly Black is a reference librarian based out of Charlotte, NC. Contact her at: