What’s the Electoral College and Why Should We Care?

By, Ariell Branson

Election Map

Contrary to popular belief, the United States is not a direct democracy. Rather, it is a republic, which is by definition, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them.” The Electoral College exemplifies this principle. Established in 1787, the Electoral College is made up of representatives called “electors” who pledge to vote for a particular presidential candidate.

In every state besides Maine and Nebraska, electors are chosen on a “winner-take-all” basis. This means that all the pledged electors for whatever candidate wins the popular vote (for the most part) will become the state’s electors. In Nebraska three of the five electoral votes are awarded to the winner of the popular vote in each of its three congressional districts and the other two given to the statewide winner of the popular vote. Maine has a comparable system—two votes are awarded to the statewide winner and its other two votes are given to the winners in each congressional district.

Shrouded in mystery and somewhat confusing, the Electoral College is an institution that many people are clueless about how it functions. But amongst those who know its inner workings, there is a great deal of controversy. The main criticism stems from the fact that it is not always determinative. This is exemplified by the three instances where no candidate has received the plurality of the popular vote. Critics assert that this is counterintuitive to how a democracy ought to function because elections aren’t decided by the one-person one-vote principle. This is worsened, critics claim, because there are no laws forcing electors to vote for the candidate for whom they pledged to vote.


In the 2000 election, elector Barbara Lett-Simmons decided not to vote for Al Gore regardless of the fact that he won the popular vote. While she did this as an act of protest, there is the very real possibility that an elector can change the course of an election and subsequently cost the candidate chosen by the popular vote the election. Why do we continue to let some voices ring louder than others? Are we not violating the sacred principles of democracy we like to claim this nation was founded upon?

Some also argue that the Electoral College decreases voter turnout by placing emphasis on large swing states. According to these critics, if we had a universal popular vote, every vote would influence who is elected. This would mean that Democrats in predominantly Republican states and Republicans in predominantly Democratic states would feel more inclined to cast a vote because they would feel that their vote actually mattered. In theory, this would foster greater political participation, which is proven by the greater voter turnout in known swing states.

As elections become more contentious, disillusionment with the Electoral College continues to grow. In 2013, a Gallup poll found that 63% of American adults supported doing away with it. This is largely because the more our society progresses, the more citizens seem to question why they are unable to influence political change. While there are good arguments for both a direct democracy and a republic, it seems that public opinion favors traditional democracy. That said, transitioning a nation as large and diverse as the United States from a republic to a direct democracy is likely an insurmountable challenge—a challenge that, if attempted, has the potential to create more problems than our current system has. For the time being, the American electorate would do well to wise-up about the Electoral College so that on Election Day there are no surprises as to how our next president is selected. Oh, and in case you’ve been living under a rock, Virginia is a BIG swing state so, yes, your vote really does matter . . . even with the Electoral College in place. So on Election Day, be sure to cast your ballot!