Does Your Vote Count? The Electoral College, Explained

In 2004, I was a high-school senior, just turned eighteen, and eager to vote in my first Presidential election. As a John Kerry supporter in Texas, I was a political minority, and while I was eager to dialogue about my convictions, my political zest was constantly discounted. Texas is a red state, everyone explained. My blue vote would be dyed red and cast for Dubya. I was told, for all intents and purposes, my vote didn’t count.

But I did vote. I was contentious of the idea that, for one reason or another, a great many votes don’t really count, and I remain contentious towards this idea today. Call me naïve, but I think voting matters greatly, and I think any logic that dissuades voter turnout is poison.

Still, each presidential election is a fresh opportunity for bafflement and disgust as we, the populace, are reminded of the bureaucratic entanglements that stand between our votes and election results.

So I’ve prepared this guide to introduce/reacquaint voters to the history and workings of our nation’s Electoral College, and to see if I can’t find some silver lining in the cloudy mechanism that will reassure me, and maybe you as well, that all of our votes do count, regardless of circumstance.

A Little History

In 1787, at the Constitutional Convention, the framers of the US Constitution met to revise the Articles of Confederation, but in the process created a new government entirely.

George Washington presided over the convention that looked to resolve many issues, not least of which included the appointment of the executive branch.

It was first proposed that congress elect the president. Objection was raised due to fears that a congressional election would lead to a president who was little more than a puppet of the legislature.

From the other side of the aisle an election by popular vote was proposed, but the interests of slaveholders didn’t align.

In James Madison’s words:

“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the scores of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”

Thus, as it became increasingly clear that an agreement upon a system for executive election would not be reached by the general body of delegates assembled, the issue was given to a Committee of Eleven.

The committee devised a system that employed a ‘substitute of electors’ in numbers equal to each state’s congressional representatives. It was another compromise, made in the shadow of the three-fifths compromise, which, at the time, forfeited undue influence in slaveholder’s favor.


Q: Two hundred and twenty-nine years have passed since the Constitutional Convention; does our current system resemble what the Founding Fathers intended?

A: Yes, largely. While James Madison and Co. were characteristically vague in writing the constitution, allowing for amendments to update and correct the system over time, the overarching principles and inherent protections remain intact today.

Q: Brass tacks: When I vote on Election Day, am I really casting a vote for President?

A: No, not directly. The truth is you’re not voting for the candidate you’re familiar with; you’re voting for a pre-selected group of party affiliates who you’ve likely never heard of.

Electors are awarded to each state in equal number to their total representation in the House and the Senate. Washington, D.C. is given the same number of electors as the least-populated state, which is currently 3. The total number of electors stands today at 538, and a majority of 270 electoral votes must be won by a candidate to secure the presidency.

Every state, except Nebraska and Maine, award electors on a winner-take-all basis. Nebraska and Maine use the 'congressional district method', awarding one elector for the popular vote within each congressional district, and awarding the two additional electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

And in the highly unlikely event that one candidate doesn't secure a majority of the Electoral College, the House of Representatives is responsible for electing the president from the top three candidates of the general election.

Q: Who are these electors?

A: First, let’s clarify who they are not. Members of congress and any ‘Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States’ cannot be nominated as an elector.

Beyond that, each state legislature determines the rules for nomination. It’s most often left for the state political parties to decide, and these organizations typically use the appointments to reward and recognize non-elected party officials and leaders, and sometimes the candidate’s personal and professional acquaintances.

Q: What do the electors do?

Nothing, until they win on Election Day. Remember, on Election Day the American people are actually voting for a slate of pledged electors.

The elected groups meet in their respective state capitols ‘on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December’ of an election year to cast their electoral votes for the candidate whom they have pledged to vote for (and who their state voters have elected them to vote for).

The official process is lengthy and formal with opening remarks and political speeches. Electors then cast ballots and the results are read. Six Certificates of Vote are made out to record and document the results and sent to specific governmental clerks, most importantly to the President of the Senate where all ballots are collected for the eventual official count by which the winner is confirmed.

Q: Where is the Electoral College?

A: The Electoral College is not an actual place; it’s the process itself.

Q: Can electors choose to vote for someone other than the person they have pledged to vote for?

A: Yes, and this is actually one of the protections the Electoral College provides. If a winning presidential candidate were to die after Election Day, but before Inauguration Day, the members in the Electoral College would be expected to decide whom to cast their votes for instead. Proponents of the Electoral College believe this would be a more effective solution than organizing another general election.

Otherwise, electors who vote contrary to their pledge or abstain from voting – either on purpose or by accident – are called ‘faithless electors’. Many states have passed laws that restrict and fine faithless electors, and throughout history they’ve been extremely rare. Faithless electors have never influenced the results of an election.

Q: Why would anyone support this method as opposed to a direct election by popular vote?

A: Proponents of the Electoral College cite a number of protections and benefits, which include:

- Protection of rural influence and values in elections. Proponents argue that without the Electoral College, campaigns would focus on highly populated urban centers and neglect rural America.

- You better establish a clear victor that protects from lengthy, indefinite recounts. For instance, in the 2012 Election, President Obama won 61.7% of the electoral vote compared to only 51.3% of the popular vote. If it came down to the popular vote, Mitt Romney might have demanded state-by-state recounts in an attempt to nibble away at Obama’s margin.

- Some even claim that the creation of swing states serves a beneficial purpose. Candidates focus their efforts on a small segment of voters, and those citizens feel duty-bound to pay close attention; the result is you have the most thoughtful and informed voters deciding the election.

Q: Why would anyone oppose the Electoral College?

A: Critics of the Electoral College cite a number of issues with the system, which include:

- A candidate can lose the popular vote and still win the election. This last occurred in 2000, and you likely feel more or less strongly about the episode depending on your political leanings. It’s theoretically possible, if you assume equal voter turnout across all districts nationwide, that a candidate could win the Electoral College with only 22% of the popular vote. This will never actually happen – the scenario is too bizarre; it’d require the candidate in question to win 41 states by 1 vote and receive 0 votes in all other states – but it shows at the very least the potential margin of error for democratic selection under Electoral College conditions.

- It discourages voter turnout in most states due to entrenched political party domination. This was the reality I came to political age under. While a heavily contested national election unfolds between candidates polling neck and neck, millions of voters feel their vote is inconsequential because of their geographic conditions.

- States don’t effectively encourage voter turnout because they receive the same number of electoral votes – political clout, in other words – regardless. Critics even claim voter suppression (reading tests, poll taxes, registration requirements, etc.), and other issues within particular states’ voting systems, are protected from undue attention by the Electoral College, which focuses attention on the statewide outcome.

Q: Is there potential for change on the horizon?

When you consider public opinion – in 2007, one poll found that 72% of voters favored replacing the EC with a direct election – you might expect to find considerable action being taken to update our voting laws.

Since 2005, three joint resolutions have been introduced to congress in an effort to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a popular vote, but all have died in committee.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, introduced in 2007, is a sort of backdoor movement to institute a nationwide popular vote. The compact’s member states have agreed to award all their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, ensuring victory for that candidate. However, the compact will not go into effect until the participating member states’ combined electoral votes reaches or surpasses 270, the number needed to secure the presidency. Currently there are 11 member states that combine for 165 electoral votes.

Q: So does my vote count?

A: Absolutely. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. More importantly, your voice and participation counts. A low voter turnout presents a skewed image of America. A high turnout ensures that American values are honestly reflected, and that political leaders are held accountable to the real majority.

The Electoral College is confusing and imperfect, most of us likely agree. And there *is* the potential for a non-majority President to take office. The best we can do? Be prepared to face that dilemma as a involved nation of voters, should it again occur.

Set the stage. Commit to vote.