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6 Things You Need to Know About the Electoral College

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

The electoral college was enshrined in the US constitution back in 1787 — but why was it included and what purpose does it serve today?

Here’s a brief explainer:


1/ The electoral college was intended to keep “the people” in check.

James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US, was worried that a demagogic figure could somehow be elected president by appealing to the public’s baser instincts and riding to victory on a hysterical wave of partisanship. To guard against this, he included the electoral college in the Constitution. Basically, the electoral college is meant to provide a check against the “tyranny of the majority.”

The electoral college is meant to, in the words of Madison, ensure that the president is elected "by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice."  

In practice, however, the electoral college almost always goes along with the people’s wishes.


2/ There have been 157 “faithless electors” throughout 56 elections.


That means that there have been 157 members of the electoral college who have not voted in accordance with the people. Seventy-one of these votes were because the initial candidate died the day before the vote was meant to be cast. Eighty-two were the result of electors going against the people’s wishes. Three were because electors abstained.

Today, 29 states and the District of Columbia require electors to stay faithful to the people. In 21 states, electors can go rogue.


3/ There have been 538 eligible electoral votes for each election since 1964.


Four hundred and thirty five votes come from the House of Representatives, 100 come from the Senate, and three come from the District of Columbia.

Distribution of votes is based on state population. Every 10 years, when the census is conducted, these votes are reallocated.

The states with the most votes are: California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29).

The states with the least votes (3 each) are: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

Nearly every states is winner takes all, meaning that if a candidate gets the most votes in a state, then she gets all the electoral votes that state has to offer. The only exceptions to this rule are Nebraska and Maine, which proportionally divide their votes.


4/ Each candidate is trying to get 270 votes.


There are 97 ways for the candidates to tie, in which case, the House of Representatives gets to elect the president.  

It’s possible to not get a single vote in 39 states plus the District of Columbia and still win the presidential election.


5/ Some states are safe. Some states swing.


Candidates spend most of their time campaigning in swing states because these states are toss-ups. They can go either way and are often decided in the weeks leading up to an election. Safe states, on the other hand, are consistent in their voting patterns and can be reliably counted on by candidates — either they’re red (Republican) or blue (Democrat).

These states are generally considered swings states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin

Safes: Everything else.


6/ Will the US ever go to popular vote?


Good question. First, let’s start with this: a candidate can win the popular vote, but not win the election because they didn’t secure 270 electoral college votes. This happened to Al Gore, in 2000. Now, a lot of people want to go to a popular vote for a number of reasons. For one, it would free candidates up to campaign equally across the country. Two, it would ensure that the majority of the public decides the president (Al Gore, for example, won the popular vote in 2000). Third, it could potentially break up the reign of the two-party system in the US and could reduce the intense partisanship that stems from two-party rule. Here’s a deeper dive into the pros of popular vote.