The Electoral College: What It Is and Why It Matters

As Election Day draws closer and closer in our fair country, it is essential that young voters are educated on the functions of the voting system in the United States and how and why your vote matters. Voting is a right our ancestors fought to give us, dating from the moment the United States became independent, to the passing of the 15th and 19th amendments. So how does our voting system for presidential elections work anyhow?

Quick History Lesson

First off, it must be made clear that--despite what many citizens think--the United States is not a democracy, but a democratic republic. Our founding fathers did not want to make the United States a pure democracy. They often do not represent a genuinely equal society as bare majorities could easily take control, and it would become tyrannical. 

This is the reason there are three branches of government -- Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. It’s why each state has two Senators regardless of population, but also different numbers of Representatives based only on population. It’s why it takes a supermajority in Congress and three-quarters of the states to change the Constitution. 

The United States’ founding fathers originally devised the way presidential elections function. It was further shaped by our two-party system and 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, when ratified in 1804, modified the Constitution’s original Article II election procedure to provide for the current system of one-ticket voting for the President and Vice President. This method is known as the Electoral College. This technique combines democracy and federalism and is made up of two key phases.

How Does It Work?

Every presidential election year, the United States hosts fifty-one purely democratic popular elections for each state and D.C. This is the first phase of the election that we partake in. These votes do not transfer directly to decide the presidential election, but actually to decide which electors will represent the state in the second phase. 

States are allocated one elector for each of their representatives in Congress. There are a total of 538 electors across the country. Of the fifty states, forty-eight of them award Electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis (as does the District of Columbia). For example, all twenty-nine of Florida’s electoral votes go to the state election winner, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.

In December, the second phase of the election occurs, with a vote made by the states’ 538 electors. This election, not the November election, officially determines the identity of the next President. At least 270 votes are needed to win.

Why Is It Done This Way Instead of Strictly Popular Vote?

The question above is often asked and used to criticize the Electoral College system. It is a valid question, and it has an equally valid answer. The popular vote is not the deciding factor in the presidential election because more than half of the entire United States would be ignored by political candidates on both sides of the two-party system. The four most populous states in the U.S. are California (40 million citizens), Texas (29 million), Florida (22 million), and New York (19 million), which adds up to 110 million people.

In comparison, the three least populous states in the U.S. (Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming) plus D.C., only add up to 3 million people. Even the six most populous states after the first four (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and Michigan) only add up to a bit more than half of 110 million, reaching 67 million.

If the United States were to make the presidential decision with the popular vote, no presidential candidate would have any reason to visit any states besides the top ten most populous states. Even then, getting the top four to vote for them would have them sitting pretty in no time. 

This issue, however, is avoided with the Electoral College system. 

The system encourages candidates to visit many different states and appeal to many different types of voters from all over the country. Winning just one area of the country, like the south, the east coast, or the west coast, wouldn’t accomplish anything as 270 electoral votes are necessary to win. 

And though there are swing states which often seem to decide the election overall, they’re ever-changing. For instance, New Hampshire wasn’t always a swing state. California, which is known to be Democrat-leaning today, was a Republican state as early as 1988, and vice versa Texas used to be Democrat-leaning instead of Republican.

This means that the candidates cannot ignore a state for any period of time, lest they risk losing that state for their party or worse. As a result, every state, and every voter in every state, is essential. It means that your vote will affect the election’s outcome no matter where you choose to live. The Electoral College encourages diversity and ensures that all voices are heard.

Xx, Christian Tippins

University of Central Florida, Kappa Alpha Theta


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