Everything You Need To Know About The Electoral College (But Were Afraid To Ask) (VIDEO)

Due in large part to the rampant gerrymandering of congressional districts that both parties have historically used to manipulate it in order to entrench congressional candidates, we’ve decided to put together a primer to explain, in basic terms, The Electoral College. This is the process by which the United States uses to officially elect its President and Vice President. Here, we will give a brief explanation of what it is, how it works, its benefits and shortcomings, and how it is manipulated by both of our major political parties.


The Electoral College was inserted into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers as a compromise of the President and Vice President being elected by Congress and by that of the popular vote, and as a way to promote fairness between states. In theory, it was envisioned to give smaller states with fewer people more leverage so that the will of the larger, more populous states would not dominate the election process.

The United States has 435 elected Representatives (one for each congressional district), and 100 Senators (two for each state). One Electoral Vote is designated for each of these congressmen. An additional 3 were issued to the District of Columbia (which is not a state) by the 23rd Amendment which was ratified in 1961. This gives us 538 Electoral Votes. 270 (half of the existing, plus 1), are needed to win a general election. If one examines each state and counts its electoral votes, you’ll notice some abnormalities as it relates to the formula referenced above. There are reasons for this, but to keep things simple for this discussion, we won’t get into them here. The video at the bottom of the page explains that in further detail.

When an individual casts his or her vote for President in a general election, they are actually voting for an Elector who has “pledged” their vote for a particular set of candidates. While most Electors are chosen by the parties themselves and are usually highly active within their local parties, it’s important to note that the Electors are not actually bound to their pledges, and in some rare cases have actually cast votes contrary for which they were elected.

While not all states divvy up their Electoral Votes in the same manner – Maine uses what is called “proportional representation,” and Nebraska allocates its votes based on who wins in each of its congressional districts. This may seem similar to being proportional, but when you have gerrymandered districts can produce very different results. The rest of the states are “winner take all.” This is one of the biggest problems with the Electoral College because it means that even if a candidate wins a very narrow margin of the popular vote (in Florida in 2000, the difference in popular vote between Al Gore and George Bush was 0.00187799158%), that candidate receives ALL of that state’s available Electoral Votes.


This of course, opens the door to gerrymandering, a process pioneered by Elbridge Thomas Gerry, whereby districts are redrawn to dis-proportionally represent and benefit a specific party. There are two main ways to do this. One, often referred to as “packing,” is where districts are re-drawn to heavily load a certain type of voter into the same districts to reduce their influence on other districts. A good example of this was attempted in Virginia on inauguration day in 2013, in a bill that was ultimately killed amid national outrage. The other method is called “cracking,” where voters of a certain type are distributed among many other districts of opposite voting types, thereby denying them a reliable voting bloc in a particular district.

Critics of the Electoral College have also pointed out that what was intended to give smaller states a level playing field has actually served to make them even more critical in a national election strategy. This helped create what are known as “battleground states.” National candidates know that, as an example, California and its nation-leading 55 Electoral votes, being the most populous state and solidly Democratic, would be a waste of valuable resources in a national campaign and therefore gets far less attention than smaller states that could swing either way. This of course violates the very spirit upon which the Electoral College itself was created. In the following video, you’ll see an example where it’s possible to win the presidency with 22% of the popular vote. It’s scary stuff, and entirely possible.

Video by CGP Grey

There have long been both proponents and opponents of the Electoral College in its present form, and there is a national movement that is gaining more support to abolish the Electoral College in favor of the National Popular Vote. This movement is being fiercely opposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an uber-conservative lobbing group led by the Koch Brothers, who are arguably the most influential donors of “dark money,”  in American politics today.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images *A version of this story was originally published in The Everlasting GOP Stoppers blog by this writer

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James is a co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Reverb Press.