What is the Electoral College?
Every four years, people all over the world watch as the results of the American presidential election come in. By the end of the night, the result is usually clear but how the process actually works is anything but. The source of confusion is the Electoral College. To win, a candidate needs to have 270 votes in the Electoral College. But what is it? It doesn’t have a building. You never see the actual voters or know their names. What is the relationship between the few hundred voters in the Electoral College and the tens of millions who went to the polls on election day? It seems a bizarre way of choosing the president of the most powerful country in the world.
After each election, people normally forget about the Electoral College for another four years. In 2016, however, that wasn’t the case. Donald Trump won the election with 304 votes in the Electoral College, compared to Hilary Clinton’s 227. However, almost three million more people voted for Clinton. Clinton won the popular vote by 2% but lost the election—because she didn’t get enough votes in the Electoral College. The same thing happened in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush beat Al Gore.
Unsurprisingly, people have been asking pointed questions about the Electoral College ever since. How can America appear so undemocratic? Why does it have the Electoral College? And might it be time to find a different way of choosing the president?
To understand the Electoral College, you have to go back to Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1787. There representatives from thirteen states met to draft a constitution for the new United States of America. They had dozens of issues to sort through, one of which was how to elect the president in their new country.
After months of discussion they decided on the Electoral College. Few were enthusiastic, but it seemed better than the alternatives and the convention delegates wanted to finish their business, leave the stench of Philadelphia, and go home.
Why did the American Founding Fathers decide on the Electoral College? Let’s start by looking at two other ways to elect the president that they discussed but rejected. Option one was to have the people’s representatives in Congress vote on who should be president. The delegates decided against this idea because they feared it would give Congress too much power over the president, who wouldn’t have an independent mandate from the people.
The second option was for the people to choose the president by popular vote. The men writing the constitution rejected this idea too, because at a time when news travelled no faster than a horse they worried that voters as far apart as Maine and Georgia would not know enough about the candidates to make an informed decision.
So they came up with the Electoral College. The idea was that each state would elect not only representatives to send to Congress but a few others who would go to Washington, get to know the candidates for the presidency, vote, and then go home. Each state received as many voters in the Electoral College as they had Senators and members of Congress. Today, there are 435 members of Congress and 100 in the Senate. Add in an extra 3 for Washington D.C. and you have the number of voters in the Electoral College: 538. Hence the magic number of 270—that’s what gives you a majority in the college.
No democracy is perfect, and it’s easy to criticize the Electoral College. But one should acknowledge the challenges faced by those who were trying to form a new system of government in 1787 and mix any criticism with sympathy. The American president would end up with more power than George III, the English king at the time. How they were to elect such a person was a very difficult question.
The Electoral College has developed over the years. The most important change has been that the members of the College don’t get to exercise independent judgment anymore: they are expected to vote for the presidential candidate who received the most votes in their state.
This helps explain how you can win the popular vote yet lose the Electoral College and therefore the election. In 2016, Clinton amassed large margins of victory in a few states, notably California, which as the most populous state has more votes in the Electoral College than any other. But whether Clinton got 51% or 100% of the vote in California, she could win no more than the 55 Electoral College votes available for the state. Trump’s support was more widely spread across the country, with the result that he won 30 of the 50 states, and therefore the Electoral College and the presidency.
On five occasions in American history, the candidate who won the popular vote did not become president. Given that two of those have occurred this century and that in both cases it was the Democratic candidate that lost out, calls to reform the Electoral College have become much louder.
Those who want change argue that the current system does not reflect the will of the American people. In particular, smaller, rural states send a disproportionately high number of voters to the Electoral College. People in New York and California feel—with some justification—that their votes count less than those of people in Wyoming.
Defenders of the Electoral College respond that this was what the Founding Fathers intended. They worried that heavily populated states would dominate the smaller ones, and so tilted the system towards the latter. It was and is a crucial feature of American democracy that it is made up of 50 individual states. Looked at from this perspective, Donald Trump’s victory was a triumph for American democracy, because it gave the White House to the candidate who had the broadest national support. (If you take away California for a moment, Trump would have won the popular vote too by more than 1 million votes.)
Don’t expect Americans to reform the Electoral College, for three reasons. One, it would take an amendment to the Constitution. That would require a two-thirds majority in both Congress and the Senate, which is hard to imagine in today’s political climate. Two, amending the Constitution is not just politically difficult, it’s psychologically difficult: the Constitution is an almost sacred focus for national identity in a country made up of immigrants. Three, Republicans are unlikely to vote for change given that the current system, with its mild bias towards their rural voter base, works nicely for them. Without the Electoral College, the Republican Party might still be waiting for its first 21st-century president (Bush would have lost in 2000 and Trump in 2016). Besides, there are parts of the Constitution much less democratic than the Electoral College, notably the Senate, where every state has two members regardless of the size of their population.
So election night in America will probably continue to include a race to 270 votes. The Electoral College can be confusing and may be undemocratic, but there’s no doubt that it makes the American presidential election a gripping spectacle. It seems made for modern media—even if it is a relic from a very different age.