The Electoral College System, Explained

The Four Percent


WASHINGTON — More than 14 million Americans have already voted in the presidential election — but none of them actually voted directly for the president.

Because of the Electoral College system in the United States, you’re not actually voting for former vice president Joe Biden or President Donald Trump; voters cast their votes for electors, who in turn cast their votes for president.

The Electoral College system is laid out in the Constitution and was envisioned by the founders as a system of voting in a time when there was little mass media, when many Americans would not have access to much information about the candidates. But on five occasions, the winner of the popular vote and the winner of the Electoral College have not been the same: It happened in 2000, it happened in 2016, and it could easily happen again in 2020.

Polls have consistently found that a majority of Americans dislike the Electoral College and would prefer to elect the president by popular vote.

But because the system is laid out in the Constitution, it’s pretty difficult to change. Doing so would require a constitutional amendment, approved by two-thirds of both the House and the Senate as well as three-quarters of the states. (Another option for amending the Constitution is having two-thirds of state legislatures call for a constitutional convention and then get three-quarters of the states to sign off on the amendment, but that’s never happened in US history.)

Since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, there have been 17 amendments added to the Constitution. The most recent addition was the 27th Amendment, passed in 1992. Because of the extremely high threshold for passing an amendment, it’s unlikely that abolishing the Electoral College would be successful in Congress at all, especially given that the system has tended to benefit Republicans in recent decades.

The Electoral College has meant that voters in rural areas — usually white people — and smaller states have significantly more influence at the ballot box than voters in big cities, where more people of color live and vote. For example, as the Washington Post has reported, about 586,000 people live in Wyoming, and the state has three electoral votes. More than 39 million people live in California, but the state has just 55 electoral votes, meaning that one voter in Wyoming has about 3.6 times more power than one voter in California.

The issue became a hot topic during the Democratic primary — though Biden broke from many of his fellow Democrats and said he did not support abolishing the Electoral College.

Some states are trying a new tactic to end its use: So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia have entered into an agreement called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).

The idea is that, rather than awarding their electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote, the group of states will give them to the winner of the national popular vote. (The agreement is currently suspended in Colorado, however, and there’s an initiative on the ballot in the state to decide whether it will stay in the coalition.)

According to the NPVIC, including Colorado’s Electoral College votes, the coalition currently represents 196 electoral votes. If enough states joined — representing more than 270 votes, the number needed to win the Electoral College — the group could essentially guarantee the winner of the presidency is the winner of the popular vote.

But the system does present problems: If, for example, a Republican wins the popular vote, Democratic strongholds like California and New York (both of which have entered into the coalition) would have to award their votes to someone whom the majority of the state voted against.



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