Here’s a little factoid that never fails to mightily confuse most voters:

As Americans, we actually DO NOT directly elect our presidents and vice presidents. I repeat, the U.S. president is not chosen through a one-person, one-vote system!

Simply put: this ain’t no direct democracy!

When we head to the polls on election day to choose a presidential candidate, we’re not actually really voting for that person. Instead, we’re throwing our support behind a group of “electors” who belong to a strange institution called the electoral college. And it’s that group that actually casts the direct votes to decide who the next president and vice president will be.

Don’t believe me? Check out Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Says it right there. Honest.

Weird, right?

Here’s how it works:

First off, what is the Electoral College (and do they have a good football team)?

It’s more of an institution than a place. No dorms.  No frat boys. No teams. No crazy parties. Basically, none of the fun stuff.

Here’s what it is: During the presidential election every four years, the various political parties in each state (for instance: California’s Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, etc.) choose a group of “electors,” generally party activists who have pledged their electoral votes to the presidential candidate of that party should he/she win the popular vote in that state. Pretty much anyone who’s registered to vote is eligible to be an elector, with the exception of members of Congress and federal government employees).

Who better to explain our confusing electoral system than … the British!

When do the electors cast their official votes for president?

Oddly, it’s actually not until after election day. On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December (stay with me here!), each state’s electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their votes — one for president and one for vice president. This event never really gets a whole lot of attention because everyone already knows that those electors are almost certainly going to vote for the candidate in their own party. The results are announced on January 6 and the president is sworn in two weeks later.

Technically, electors can change their minds, but that’s  only happened about five times in U.S. history (these electors are labeled “faithless”). Interestingly, most instances have been within the last 30 years, according to Time Magazine.

How many electors does each state get?

It’s based on the number of U.S. congressional representatives that each state has, plus its two senators. So, every state (and the District of Columbia) is guaranteed at least 3 electoral votes. A sparsely populated state like North Dakota – which has two senators but only one congressional representative – gets just three electoral votes. So, in North Dakota, each political party comes up with their own list of three electors to represent the state in the Electoral College (should the candidate from that party win the popular vote).

California, in comparison, is the most populous state, and gets 55 electoral votes (53 congressional reps plus two senators).

How does a candidate win electors?

The presidential election is decided state-by-state. And for almost every state, it’s a winner-take-all scenario. Which means that the candidate who receives the most popular (aka direct) votes in each state, gets all of that state’s electors. And the other candidates in the race – even if they lose the popular vote by just a couple of actual votes = get no electors from that state at all. Nada. Squat.

So, looking at California again, If Barack Obama were to win the state, he’d get all 55 Democratic electors and Mitt Romney wouldn’t get a single one of his 55 Republican electors.

And that’s why very populous states like California, New York, Texas, and Florida are political jackpots; they just have so many delicious electors for the taking.

The two exceptions to this rule are Maine and Nebraska. They use a proportional system, in which two electors are chosen by popular vote and the remainder of the electors are decided by the popular vote within each congressional district.

Why is 270 the magic number?

There are 538 electors nationwide, and to win the the presidency, a candidate needs 270 of them. So, if you win a state like California (even if you win it by a single measly popular vote), you’ve just gotten about 20 percent of the votes you need to be sitting pretty in the White House come January.

Conversely, presidential candidates generally don’t spend too much time on the campaign trail in  places like the Dakotas (no offense guys – we still love you). Although, you probably won’t find them spending that much time in California either – because it’s pretty safely in the Democratic category. It’s the big swing states (or battleground states) – places like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia – that you’ll see the candidates spending most of their time as the election nears. Because it’s these states that are still up for grabs and chock full of  electors – they’re the one’s that will usually decide the election.

PBS NewsHour’s election map center and the site 270 To Win both provide good interactive maps that allow users to play around with the variables and simulate various outcome. They also show the state-by-state breakdowns in past elections.

This is all really confusing! Give a real example already.

OK. Let’s look back at the 2008 election. First off, in terms of electoral votes, Obama pretty much killed it – he ended up with more than twice as many as John McCain: 365 compared to 173. But the weird thing is, Obama actually won the election by less than 10 million popular votes. The reason being that he was able to just squeak by in the big critical swing states (namely Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida), which collectively got him a huge number of electoral votes.

What happened in Florida is a actually a great example of just how peculiar our electoral system can be:

The Sunshine State is the quintessential mother-lode swing state; always unpredictable and worth a big chunk of electoral votes. In 2008, Obama won it by a margin of less than three percent (he got about 51 percent to McCain’s 48 percent). We’re talking about a victory of less than 300,000 votes. But because of the winner-take-all rule, Obama still got all 27 of the state’s electoral votes (and McCain got none). So depending on how you look at it, you could technically argue that the votes cast by the more than 4 million Floridians who chose McCain didn’t really end up counting for much at all.

Can a candidate win the presidency without winning the popular vote?

Indeed! It’s actually happened four different times in America’s history: In 1876 and 1888, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, respectively, won the White House even though they lost the popular vote (but won the electoral vote). And then there was the strange 1824 election, in which Andrew Jackson won more popular votes and electoral votes, but still ended up losing the election to John Quincy Adams. Turns out that Jackson’s 15 electoral vote advantage wasn’t enough to secure a required majority, and the presidency was ultimately decided by a vote in the House of Representatives. Pretty wacky.

And finally, who could forgot the 2000 election, in which Al Gore won more popular votes than George W. Bush, but lost the election (guess who’s now a big proponent of getting rid of the Electoral College?).

Why did the Founding Fathers come up with such a zany system? 

Two main reasons:

a) They wanted to steer clear of the British parliamentary model, in which the chief executive (prime minister) is chosen by elected representatives of the majority party. The founders thought that it was more democratic to appoint electors from each state than to have a system in which the president was elected by Congress.

b) It came down to an issue of old-school logistics: Back in the day (like way, way back: I’m talking before phones, and trains and wheels – OK, fine, they had wheels), long distance communication and travel was a challenge. Voting for delegates at a local level was easier and less susceptible to tampering and corruption than was counting every last person’s vote throughout the whole country.

What are arguments for keeping the Electoral College?

  • It forces candidates to pay at least some attention to less-populated states. It also guarantees some political recognition to rural areas, as opposed to politicians being entirely focused on on voter-rich urban centers.
  • It gives a greater degree of power to minority groups by allowing the opportunity for a relatively small number of voters in each state to determine the outcome.
  • It’s consistent with America’s representative system of government, and it’s just the way we’ve always done it; it’s in our Constitution dagnabbit, so leave it be!

And how about against?

  • Under our current electoral system, not all votes are equal; voters in swing states and less populous states have disproportionate power. And that disenfranchises millions of voters whose votes are not as important. In a direct election, everyone’s vote would have the same weight regardless of geography.
  • It gives candidates the negative incentive to focus their campaigns mostly in swing states while largely ignoring the millions of voters in populous states that tend to consistently favor one party (like California and Texas).
  • It’s a super outdated system that creates the potential for a candidate to win the popular vote but still lose the election.

  • s e

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), ensures that the candidates, after the conventions, will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided “battleground” states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored –including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That’s more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans, ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    The number and population of battleground states is shrinking as the U.S. population grows.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

  • s e

    In the current system, battleground states are the only states that matter in presidential elections. Campaigns are tailored to address the issues that matter to voters in these states.

    Safe red and blue states are considered a waste of time, money and energy to candidates. These “spectator” states receive no campaign attention, visits or ads. Their concerns are utterly ignored.

    The influence of ethnic minority voters has decreased tremendously as the number of battleground states dwindles. For example, in 1976, 73% of blacks lived in battleground states. In 2004, that proportion fell to a mere 17%. Just 21% of African Americans and 18% of Latinos lived in the 12 closest battleground states. So, roughly 80% of non-white voters might as well have not existed.

    The Asian American Action Fund, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, NAACP, National Latino Congreso, and National Black Caucus of State Legislators endorse a national popular vote for president.

  • s e

    With National Popular Vote, every vote would be equal. Candidates would reallocate the money they raise to no longer ignore more than 2/3rds of the states and voters.

    With National Popular Vote, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome.
    The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States and the population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population of the United States.

    Suburbs and exurbs often vote Republican.

    If big cities controlled the outcome of elections, the governors and U.S. Senators would be Democratic in virtually every state with a significant city.

    A nationwide presidential campaign, with every vote equal, would be run the way presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, under the state-by-state winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida.

    The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When and where every vote is equal, a campaign must be run everywhere.

    With National Popular Vote, when every vote is equal, everywhere, it makes sense for presidential candidates to try and elevate their votes where they are and aren’t so well liked. But, under the state-by-state winner-take-all laws, it makes no sense for a Democrat to try and do that in Vermont or Wyoming, or for a Republican to try it in Wyoming or Vermont.

    Even in California state-wide elections, candidates for governor or U.S. Senate don’t campaign just in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and those places don’t control the outcome (otherwise California wouldn’t have recently had Republican governors Reagan, Dukemejian, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger). A vote in rural Alpine county is just an important as a vote in Los Angeles. If Los Angeles cannot control statewide elections in California, it can hardly control a nationwide election.

    In fact, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland together cannot control a statewide election in California.

    Similarly, Republicans dominate Texas politics without carrying big cities such as Dallas and Houston.

    There are numerous other examples of Republicans who won races for governor and U.S. Senator in other states that have big cities (e.g., New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) without ever carrying the big cities of their respective states.

    Candidates would need to build a winning coalition across demographics. Any candidate who ignored, for example, the 16% of Americans who live in rural areas in favor of a “big city” approach would not likely win the national popular vote. Candidates would have to appeal to a broad range of demographics, and perhaps even more so, because the election wouldn’t be capable of coming down to just one demographic, such as soccer mom voters in Ohio.

  • s e

    None of the 10 most rural states (VT, ME, WV, MS, SD, AR, MT, ND, AL, and KY) is a battleground state.
    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes does not enhance the influence of rural states, because the most rural states are not battleground states, and they are ignored.

    Now political clout comes from being among the handful of battleground states. More than 2/3rds of states and voters are ignored.

    Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don’t matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

    Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK -70%, DC -76%, DE –75%, ID -77%, ME – 77%, MT- 72%, NE – 74%, NH–69%, NE – 72%, NM – 76%, RI – 74%, SD- 71%, UT- 70%, VT – 75%, WV- 81%, and WY- 69%.

    In the lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in nine state legislative chambers, and been enacted by 3 jurisdictions.

    Of the 25 smallest states (with a total of 155 electoral votes) 18 received no attention at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions. Of the seven smallest states with any post-convention visits, Only 4 of the smallest states – NH (12 events), NM (8), NV (12), and IA (7) – got the outsized attention of 39 of the 43 total events in the 25 smallest states. In contrast, Ohio (with only 20 electoral votes) was lavishly wooed with 62 of the total 300 post-convention campaign events in the whole country.

    In the 25 smallest states in 2008, the Democratic and Republican popular vote was almost tied (9.9 million versus 9.8 million), as was the electoral vote (57 versus 58).

  • s e

    The Electoral College is now the set of dedicated party activists, who vote as rubberstamps for presidential candidates. In the current presidential election system, 48 states award all of their electors to the winners of their state. This is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

    The Founding Fathers in the Constitution did not require states to allow their citizens to vote for president, much less award all their electoral votes based upon the vote of their citizens.

    The presidential election system we have today is not in the Constitution. State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award Electoral College votes, were eventually enacted by states, using their exclusive power to do so, AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Now our current system can be changed by state laws again.

    Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    The constitution does not prohibit any of the methods that were debated and rejected. Indeed, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors using two of the rejected methods in the nation’s first presidential election in 1789 (i.e., appointment by the legislature and by the governor and his cabinet). Presidential electors were appointed by state legislatures for almost a century.

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

    The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.

    The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state’s electoral votes.

    As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all method is used by 48 of the 50 states. States can, and frequently have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years.

  • s e

    Presidential elections don’t have to be this way.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 small, medium, and large states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions (including California) possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  • What happened to the old majority rules?
    The system sucks. Change it!

  • Margaret

    The vote of the majority of the people is what counts. The Electoral College made sense back in the day of no TV, radio, internet, etc. But not in todays world. It needs to be gone.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @KQEDlowdown

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