How the Electoral College Works: A Guide

And why we have it in the first place.

2020 election biscuits
(Image credit: Christopher Furlong)

It's unlikely that any of us will soon forget the confusion and frustration we felt on Nov. 8, 2016, when Donald Trump was named president of the United States with 304 Electoral College votes to his name—despite receiving nearly 3 million fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton. Calls were immediately made for the elimination of the Electoral College, which, it seemed, no longer adequately represented the true interests of an increasingly diverse citizenry largely clustered in just a handful of states.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the Electoral College is still firmly in place. And though the latest polls show Joe Biden with a growing lead over Trump in electoral votes, it's worth taking a look at how the Electoral College came to be, how it works, and how it can hypothetically give some Americans' votes significantly more weight than others.

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College comprises delegates from each state and Washington, D.C., who are appointed by their respective state legislatures to cast a vote for a specific candidate. In essence, when you cast your vote for a presidential candidate, you're actually casting a vote for your state to appoint an elector who will officially vote for that candidate. If it sounds unnecessarily confusing, that's because it kind of is.

The concept of choosing electors was laid out in the Constitution, which mandates that the number of delegates each state receives is equal to the number of its Congressional representatives (Washington, D.C., receives the same number of electors as the least populous state). Currently, this means there are 538 voters in the Electoral College, with an absolute majority of at least 270 votes required to win an election.

How are electors chosen?

Each state legislature is allowed to determine how its own electors are selected. The only hard and fast rules, according to the Constitution, are that electors cannot be currently holding any federal office, nor can they have "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the nation.

Typically, political parties in each state nominate electors based on their consistency and loyalty to the party over the years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This way, they can hopefully avoid the phenomenon of "faithless electors," who are nominated to vote for a specific party but end up changing their vote in the actual election.

Do we still need the Electoral College?

About 60 percent of Americans say no. The premise of an Electoral College was devised more than 200 years ago, when there were only 13 stars on the flag and the only people allowed to vote were white land-owning men. The framers of the Constitution believed state-appointed delegates were necessary to represent the best interests of a largely uneducated, rural American population. Now, with more than 200 million diverse voters spread from coast to coast, concentrated in urban areas, and more educated than ever, it seems counterproductive to still be using the same system after more than two centuries of intense nationwide change.

Take, for example, the case of a swing state like Iowa, which ranks in the bottom half of the most populous U.S. states, yet has played a decidedly outsize role in determining the winners of most recent presidential elections. Because of how delegates are allotted, each of Iowa's six Electoral College votes represents about 525,000 Iowans, while California, the most populous state in the country, sees 718,000 Californians represented by each of its 55 Electoral College votes. Even more jarring is the comparison of Californians' vote weight to that of Wyomingites', whose three electoral votes each represent just 193,000 citizens, giving their votes nearly four times more theoretical "weight" than Californians'. Discrepancies like these seem to be in direct opposition to the concept of "one person, one vote," in which every American's vote is expected to carry the same weight.

There's also the fact that the vast majority of states (and Washington, D.C.) use a "winner take all" system for allotting electoral votes. That means that even if a state's voters are split almost exactly down the middle between two candidates, whichever has even the slightest edge gets all of the state's votes in the Electoral College, again giving the impression that a sizable chunk of each state's votes end up completely erased. This is why "battleground" and swing states are so crucial for candidates to clinch: In 2016, for example, Trump edged out Clinton by just 13,000 votes in Michigan—more than enough to hand him all 16 of the state's electoral votes.

The only states that split up Electoral College votes according to the popular vote are Maine and Nebraska, per the NCSL. Under their congressional district system, these two states instead award one electoral vote to the winner of the popular vote in each district, and another two votes to the winner of the popular vote across the state as a whole. However, this system has led to split votes only once in each state's history: in Nebraska in 2008 and in Maine in 2016.

On top of all this, there's always the possibility of a faithless elector, who, in deciding not to vote for the candidate they were supposed to, completely negates their representative portion of their state's popular votes. Currently, 33 states and Washington, D.C., have laws in place that bar members of the Electoral College from changing their votes, but only a handful of these laws actually penalize faithless electors and/or erase their changed votes.

So, does your vote count?

Absolutely. Regardless of how much (or how little) representative weight your vote may seem to carry in the Electoral College, elections can be determined by just a handful of votes in any state, big or small. Your vote could be the one that secures a win for your candidate in your district, and your district could then act as a tipping point to clinch that win across the state, therefore prompting your state's electors to cast their votes for that candidate on the formal Electoral College ballot in December.

Too many elections have been decided not by improbable, unpredictable swing states, but by the millions of voters who stay home because they believe their vote doesn't count—so make sure you're registered and make a plan to vote today.

Andrea Park

Andrea Park is a Chicago-based writer and reporter with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the extended Kardashian-Jenner kingdom, early 2000s rom-coms and celebrity book club selections. She graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2017 and has also written for W, Brides, Glamour, Women's Health, People and more.