How the Electoral College Works (or Doesn’t)

President Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in Denver tonight for the first of three debates that are to be held over the next two weeks. They will not be speaking to the entire country. They will not be speaking to the 47%. They will not be speaking to the 53%. More than likely, they will be addressing the concerns of people living in a handful of states, particularly Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada and Iowa.

These are the so called “swing states” in which neither candidate has a commanding lead. He who picks up the most votes in these states will almost certainly be the next President of the United States. Considering that my vote would be from New York, I may as well not vote. Here’s why.

The framers of the US Constitution were big fans of democratic governance in so far as it was not monarchical. The kings of Europe were bad. The American yeoman farmer was good, but not good enough to be trusted with a direct vote for the highest office in the land. And so they created the electoral college.

How it works

The Electoral College is made up of representatives whose only job is to vote for the President. The membership is basically equal to the total number of representatives in Congress. There are currently 538 electors: 100 (number of members in the Senate) + 435 (number of Representatives in the House) + 3 from Washington D.C., which has no Congressional representation.

The partisan colors reflect the current Congress only in which the Democrats control the Senate and GOP the House. DC is not winner takes all.

Whichever party/candidate garners the most votes in each state, typically gets all the electors from that state. This system is not a federal mandate as Maine and Nebraska award electors based on the most popular candidate per Congressional district. The federal government empowers states to decide how to allocate electors. In our country’s early history, it was no uncommon for state legislatures to decide how to allocate electors – this is a Republic after all! For the most part, we have a winner take all system based on state-wide popular votes.

Why it was created

  1. The “lower” chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives, distributes its membership as a proportion of population. Big states get more representatives, smaller states get fewer. In the “upper” chamber, the Senate, each state gets two Senators, regardless of population. The reason for the latter was to prevent the bigger states from bullying the smaller states. The electoral college was primarily intended to over-represent the smaller states and protect their interests against a tyranny of the majority.
  2. The masses cannot be trusted with a direct vote. It wasn’t just yeoman farmers, but also poor immigrants, free blacks and vast swaths of other uneducated plebeians. Just in case they voted the wrong way, the electors, chosen by the parties, would be able to vote for the correct candidates. When an Elector votes for someone other than the candidate who won the popular vote in the state, s/he is deemed to be a faithless elector. Many states have criminalized faithlessness and no significant instance of faithlessness has occurred for decades.

Why it persists

The reason for this is simple. The Electoral College grants a disproportionate vote to smaller sates. In order to get rid of the Electoral College, a Constitutional Amendment must pass both houses of Congress. The chances of states like Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas willingly giving up such power is slim to none.


I was wrong. A Constitutional Amendment is not required, as I explain in a later post:

How to Get Rid of the Electoral College Without Abolishing it


Why it sucks

  1. In solid blue states like New York, the fact that all the Electoral College votes are going to go for Obama anyway, potential voters from both sides of the political spectrum are discouraged from actually going to the ballots in November. The same goes for potential voters in solid red states like Alabama and Louisiana. Essentially, a big chunk of the American population is being told to stay at home while people from more important states vote.
  2. A system that was designed to protect the interests of smaller states has resulted in a perpetual campaign that focuses the overwhelming majority of political attention on swing states – those that are neither solid blue or red. Folks in New Hampshire and Ohio are sick of being pandered to once every four years. As a New Yorker, I could only hope that one day, I too can be pandered to.

In 2000, Al Gore received more actual votes than George Bush but fewer electoral votes. Bush won the election. It would be difficult, based on Gore’s popular vote victory to say that he should have won the election. So many voters stayed at home precisely because the popular vote is meaningless – who knows how many would have turned out in a direct election.

In 2008, Obama defeated McCain by a margin of 52.9% to 45.7 percent – a difference of just over 7%. In the Electoral College, however, Obama won by a margin of 365 to 173 – a difference of 35%. Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable about this disparity?

Popular margin or victory: 7%. Electoral margin of victory: 35%. Not cool.

The Electoral College marginalizes the votes of people in all but a handful of states. A Floridian vote is clearly more valuable than mine. As Orwell said, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.


11 thoughts on “How the Electoral College Works (or Doesn’t)

    1. Robert, thanks for the didactics. I had 6.5 minutes to spare on my Friday time clock.
      I still can’t imagine what the only decent contender, the owl, must have said to not win.

  1. I guess it’s a function of normalization by some arbitrarily weighted standards… but why isn’t “Percent of people in State X that actually vote” somehow also accounted for? I think that’s the missing link. Like if Texas gets 38 electoral votes, but only 25% of the population votes, then it only should get 10 votes. That still allows for defence of small states, protection from the plebs, while allowing everyone to feel important.

    1. That would be interesting I suppose but it would be much easier if everyone just voted and we just added up the votes to see who won.

      Essentially, I disagree with the over representation that smaller states get. Trying to create some formula to base electoral votes on turnout would only convolute an already complicated system.

      It kinda makes sense in congress where actual laws are made but this is the election for the president. I say it make sense in that I understand the logic – I’m still not sure if I agree with it.

      The idea of one person one vote was a pretty spectacular one – one that wasn’t obvious an one that was somewhat revolutionary. It would be good if we could take one step further in terms actualising it.

      1. Your statement is anti-American and would never work! By your own admission in this very article! What I’m trying to say is without needing to disagree w/ the system and it’s over-representation of smaller states the balancing I mentioned works well!

        check it:
        pure votes Bush 47.87%
        pure votes Gore 48.38%

        Electoral votes, Bush 271
        Electoral votes, Gore 266

        Adjusted Electoral votes Bush 142.772
        Adjusted Electoral votes Gore 153.706

        Rounded Adjusted elec. Votes bush 144
        Rounded Adjusted elec. Votes Gore 153

        sent file by email…. not so convoluted.

      2. Even using your adjusted electoral votes, Gore should have won. And that is contrary to what happened. Why complicate matters with formulas? Why not just vote and see who had more?

        Also 2000 is one of the only years in which the popular and electoral vote count was close. Almost every other year there is a huge disparity.

  2. That’s the point holmes… that the adjusted formula would have made Gore win, matching popular vote. Keeps the system going, represents popular vote, provides incentive for all to vote… It’s the perfect system

    1. Great Scott! How is that any better than adding up all the votes? Who would create this formula? Would it be a committee? How do we ensure that everything is weighed properly? It’s just adding more complications and potential for manipulation. Procedure aside, I disagree with the whole idea of weighing in the first place. All votes should be equal.

      1. says the guy from NY… what bout Rhode Island? What incentive would they EVER have to vote? Who would ever pander to them? This soon starts to get trollish so I stop now.

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