Electoral College? Or Popular Vote?

What is the Electoral College, and why does it decide who is president? Students learn about and discuss the pros and cons of the Electoral College system and current campaigns to reform or circumvent it.   


1. What is the Electoral College?

a) a school of higher learning, specializing in electronics
b) a school of higher learning where students are taught primarily by lectures
c) a voting system invented in 1968 to prevent Joe McCarthy from becoming president
d) an indirect voting system that sometimes allows candidates for president to win without getting the most popular votes
e) none of the above

Answer: d

2. True or False: The official presidential election took place on December 19, 2016, when presidential electors (who make up the "Electoral College") met in the 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C.

Answer: True

3.  Members of the Electoral College are supposed to vote for the candidate who:

a) won the popular vote in their state
b) polled the highest in the last three national surveys
c) is the best person for the job
d) has the best television ads

Answer: a. In every state but Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who wins the most votes in the state is supposed to receive all of the state’s electoral votes

4.  True or False: No president has ever come to office without getting the most popular votes.

Answer: False

  • In 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected president despite not winning the popular vote. Neither he nor his opponent Andrew Jackson got the 131 votes needed in the Electoral College to be declared president, so the decision went to the House of Representatives, which voted Adams into the White House.
  • In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won the election, but he lost the popular vote by more than 250,000 ballots to Samuel J. Tilden.
  • In 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the election, but lost the popular vote by more than 90,000 votes to Grover Cleveland.
  • In 2000, George W. Bush was declared the winner of the general election even though he got 540,000 fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, Al Gore.
  • In 2016, Donald Trump was declared president, even though he received about 2.8 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, at latest count.

Student Reading:
Electoral College Debate

Have students read the material below, either out loud or silently.


Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump - about 2.8 million more, by the most recent count. And yet, on December 19, 2016, Donald Trump became the official winner of the 2016 presidential election. How did this happen?

Our Electoral College system, established in the U.S. Constitution, provides an indirect means of electing the president. Voters in each state, according to each state’s rules, elect "electors" who will then go on to elect a president. In almost every state, the electors  are pledged to elect the candidate who got the most votes in their state  -- and 29 states plus the District of Columbia have passed laws to punish electors who don’t vote this way. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which distribute their electoral votes by district. (For a full description of the process, see the lesson "Should the U.S. Junk Its Electoral System?")

The Electoral College system was adopted at the 1787 Constitutional Convention for a variety of reasons --  including an interest in protecting the system of slavery. Political scholar George C. Edwards III writes that at the Constitutional Convention:   

A direct election for president did not sit well with most delegates from the slave states, which had large populations but far fewer eligible voters [because slaves could not vote]. They gravitated toward the electoral college as a compromise because it was based on population [not voters]. The convention had agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of calculating each state’s allotment of seats in Congress.

After the 2016 election, a number of citizen groups have revived longstanding calls to create an alternative to the Electoral College system.   

Opponents of the system argue that:

  • Every citizen's vote should carry the same importance
  • Millions of votes are essentially "wasted" because most states award all of their electors to the winner of that state (a "winner-take-all" system).
  • The number of electors per state is itself unfair. All states, regardless of population, are awarded the same number of  electors: two for their two senators, plus one for each of the state’s representatives in the House (which roughly corresponds to the population). So, for example, Wyoming has three electoral votes (for its two senators and one representative) - which is more representation than the state would have if electors were allotted by population. According to FairVote, Wyoming voters have about three times more clout in the Electoral College than the average American. Each voter in the populous state of New York, by contrast, has 12% less clout than the average American.
  • Campaigns can essentially ignore states where the outcome is predictable, because the loser's votes will count for nothing.

Advocates for retaining the Electoral College insist that:

  • Without the Electoral College, a few high-population states would decide the elections. Less populous states would have diminished power as a result.
  • Rural areas, without much population, would lose power as well.
  • Eliminating the Electoral College would encourage third parties, and this could lead to the election of candidates (from the current major parties or not) who win even smaller fractions of the popular vote than under our existing system.

The 2016 election was the second time in the last 16 years that the candidate with the most votes did not win the presidential election. (In 2000, Democrat Al Gore got over a half million more votes than Republican George Bush, who was elected President.) In the current election, Clinton won the popular vote by a wider margin than that of 10 winning candidates in history. This, coupled with strong opposition to a Trump presidency among many people, has spawned a variety of efforts to amend, eliminate or circumvent the Electoral College.

Some of these efforts aimed specifically at overturning the results of the 2016 presidential election. Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig founded an organization called Electors Trust, and promised legal assistance to any Trump elector who switched his or her vote.  Rather than opposing the whole concept of the College, Lessig insists that the founders intended the electors to perform just such a function—to vote their conscience to prevent an unfit, but popular, person from becoming president. Change.org collected over 4 million names on a petition asking members of the Electoral College to change their vote from Trump to Clinton. Another organization, called the Hamilton Electors, asked Trump and Clinton electors to support a Republican other than Trump for the presidency.  (Only a half dozen electors ultimately opted to change their votes on December 19.) 

Democratic electors from Florida and Colorado filed suit to invalidate state rules which force them to vote for the candidate who won their states. They hoped to make it easier for Republican electors to switch votes. Both efforts failed in court.

Other challenges to the Electoral College are long-term, and opposition to it is longstanding. In its December 19, 2016, editorial for abolishing the Electoral College, the New York Times editorial  board noted that the paper had been opposed to the current system for eight decades. A great majority of Americans also oppose it. On November 15, 2016, Sen. Barbara Boxer (Dem., CA) introduced a bill to amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College. 

But the Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution and amending the Constitution is extremely difficult: It requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate or by a convention of states called for by two-thirds of the State legislatures. Then, to become part of the Constitution, an amendment must be ratified by either the legislatures of three-quarters of the states or by state ratifying conventions in three-quarters of the states.

An organization called National Popular Vote has devised a plan that would retain the Electoral College but institute majority rule. Under this plan, states would voluntarily change their own rules for selecting electors by requiring them to vote for the candidate who has won the popular vote nationwide. If states selecting a simple majority of the electors agreed to the plan, then the candidate with the most votes would also win the Electoral College vote. By 2016, ten states (and the District of Columbia) had agreed to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The tally of those states' electoral votes is 163, of the minimum, 270, that is needed for the idea to succeed.

Efforts to amend the Constitution or make any changes at all in the electoral system will face opposition from the states and from the political party (the Republicans) that has benefited from the unequal weighting of votes.



  1. The Senate, like the Electoral College, gives disproportionate power to the less-populated states (because each state gets two senators regardless of population). Is this unfair to the citizens of highly-populated states?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of this system - keeping in mind that unlike the Senate, the House’s representatives are proportionate to the population?
  2. One argument against the Electoral College posits that voters in the predictable states (where one candidate has much higher odds of winning) are discouraged from voting because they believe their vote will not count. Do you buy this argument?  Why or why not?
  3. One argument for the Electoral College is that presidential campaigns would largely ignore the rural states, because their time and money would be better spent in metropolitan areas, if only the popular vote mattered. Do you think campaigns and presidents would be more likely to ignore the concerns of rural voters if we elected presidents by popular vote?
  4. Do you think the U.S. should eliminate the Electoral College and elect presidents based on the national popular vote instead?  Why or why not? Provide your arguments.



Ask students to write a brief essay in which they answer Question #4, providing at least three arguments to support their case.