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Low angle shot of people in line waiting to vote.

How the Electoral College works and why you should care

social science, race, mathJohn Gordon, Content DeveloperOct 30, 2020

Ah, the season is upon us.

Which season? Fall? Surely not fall. If, like me, you're currently looking out a window in Minnesota, you'll understand that fall is already a hazy memory. Fall is gone, and we're currently in "icy mud season."

But that's not the season I was referring to either. I'm talking about election season, of course. And not just any election season; in the US, it's the big one—the presidential election!

WAIT! WAIT! Don't run off like that! It's not exactly what you think! I'm not here to make you feel bad! Or, at least, I'm not here to make you feel bad directly. And that's appropriate, because it's time for a refresher on the United States' "Electoral College." This is going to be a long one, so if you only have a minute, check out . . .


  • In the US, your vote doesn't go directly to your preferred candidate. Instead, it goes toward determining how many electoral votes your state awards to a candidate.

  • The candidate with the most electoral votes gets to be president, even if they get fewer individual votes. (Two of the last three presidents were first elected to office despite losing the popular vote).

  • "Electors" cast a state's electoral votes. The number of electors a state gets equals the number of US representatives and US senators it has. For example, Minnesota has eight congressional districts (each with a representative) and two senators (the same as every state), so it gets ten electors.

  • Most states award *all* of their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the *most* votes in the state. So if candidate A receives 51% of the votes in a state, and candidate B receives 49% of the votes, the state still awards 100% of its electoral votes to candidate A. So if you don't vote, you're giving your representation away to people who do vote.

    Does that simple explanation seem complicated? Well, buckle up, because it's actually more complicated than that.

    In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush lost the popular vote (the overall number of people who voted for him in the country) but won the electoral college vote. The deciding electoral votes were awarded to him after the US Supreme Court weighed in on the contested election in Florida. So the Supreme Court can affect who gets your vote in this system.

    The number of congressional districts a state has (and the corresponding number of electors) is determined by the state's population, which is determined by the US Census. Since the Census is only conducted once a decade, it's very important that it's done so thoroughly and fairly (who gets counted by the Census, and how, can also be determined by Supreme Court rulings).

    Also, even though most of a state's electors come from its number of congressional districts, each state gets an additional two electors for their senators (all states have 2 senators regardless of population). Consider how that applies to the following scenario: The most populous state, California, gets 55 electors (two for its senators, 53 for its congressional districts), making it a much bigger electoral prize than the least populous state, Wyoming, with just three electors (two for the senators, one for its single congressional district). But that also means that each vote in Wyoming is technically more powerful than each vote in California. Wyoming's population is about 579,000, so each person in Wyoming is worth about .0000052 electoral votes; California's population is about 39,510,000, so each person in California is worth about .0000014 electoral votes. Assuming roughly the same percentage of the population votes in each state, that means that each individual vote in Wyoming is worth about 3.7 times more than each vote in California.

    Now, both of those states use "winner-take-all" electoral voting; they give all their electoral votes to the candidate who receives most of the votes within the state. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, do it differently; they use the "Congressional District Method" to award electoral votes. That means that the vote is broken down to congressional districts, and the winner of each district gets the electoral vote assigned that district (and the remaining two electors go to the state's overall winner). It's an interesting variation on the system, but it's also vulnerable to gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is when congressional districts are intentionally redrawn to make the district "safe" for a representative. (Imagine a perfectly square state with four congressional districts. You might think the state would be evenly broken into four pieces based on population or geography. But if the voters of each party aren't evenly distributed throughout the square, congressional districts can be drawn in weird shapes to capture *mostly* voters of a particular party. That could help a smaller voting group from being completely steamrolled by a larger one . . . but it can, and often is, also used to make a smaller voting group get *more* representation than a larger group. Confusing but true! Check out this graphic for a simple demonstration of how that can be done.

    Why was this kinda confusing system created? And why do we use it still today? The basic origin story of the Electoral College is that it was created as a compromise at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. In the early days of the country, some of the "founding fathers" thought that the president should be decided by a straightforward democratic popular vote. Others, however, were very wary of letting the public pick their own president. If any old person could vote for whoever they wanted, this group reasoned, then we could end up with a real goofball of a president. The Electoral College was created as a compromise. We still use it today, some argue, because it keeps more-populous states from outweighing the needs and representation of less-populous states, and because it may keep election results tidier (a nation-wide run-off election or recount could be difficult and contentious).

    Critics of the Electoral College point out that one of the reasons it was formed was so that southern states could benefit in terms of representation from their slave populations without actually giving the enslaved people access to that representation. See, in 1787, there were 700,000 enslaved Black people in the United States. They made up a very large chunk of the human population of the South. Slaves weren't allowed to vote, but southern lawmakers thought they should count towards a state's population when the government determined how much representation each state should get. The agreement reached at the 1787 Constitutional Convention was that each enslaved human would count as three-fifths of a person when representation was determined based on population. So southern states got additional members of Congress (and electoral votes) based on the number of enslaved people they had, despite the slaves themselves not being allowed to vote. This was called "The Three-Fifths Compromise."

    Critics have pointed out, too, that the Electoral College continued to be a tool used to deliberately suppress Black voters well into the 20th century, and continues to have that effect today.

    It's a complicated system, and the arguments for and against it are likewise complicated. I encourage you to look into it more yourselves and to advocate for your own position. But if you take nothing else away from this, I'd hope you at least get this:
    Because of the Electoral College, if you can vote but you do not, you are not simply abstaining from the process or "throwing your vote away." You are giving your vote and your representation to someone who does vote. It's a winner-take-all system, and your share of the electoral vote will be given to a candidate whether you vote or not, so if you don't vote, your share is essentially divided up between people who do vote.

    So if you can vote, VOTE. Be safe and be courteous, but do not let the system take advantage of you without your participation. So vote.
    Vote. Vote. Vote.