How the Electoral College Works

By: Kevin Bonsor & Laurie L. Dove

The Electoral College Debate

Proponents of the Electoral College say the system serves its purpose, despite the fact that the candidate who wins the popular vote doesn't always win the election. The Electoral College is a block, or weighed, voting system designed to give more power to the states with more votes, but allows for small states to swing an election, as happened in 1876. Under this system, each state is assigned a specific number of votes proportional to its population, so that each state's power is representative of its population. So, while winning the popular vote may not ensure a candidate's victory, a candidate must gain popular support of a particular state to win the votes in that state. The goal of any candidate is to put together the right combination of states to earn 270 electoral votes.

As the 2000 election approached, some observers thought that Bush, the son of a former president, could win the popular vote, but that his opponent, Gore, could win the Electoral College vote because Gore was leading in certain big states, such as California, New York and Pennsylvania. In the end, Gore secured the popular vote, but Bush won by securing the majority of votes in the Electoral College.


Since then, a push to reform the Electoral College has been gaining steam. As of December 2020, 15 states and the District of Columbia (with 196 electoral votes) have passed legislation that mandates electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote. Other states are introducing an Electoral College reform bill or discussing it in committee [source: National Popular Vote]. This National Popular Vote law would take effect only when it's been passed by enough states to have a total number of electoral votes of 270.

To many, aligning the electoral vote with the popular vote seems like a valid solution. Others believe there must be a better way to select a president than by popular vote alone. Otherwise, small states or states with sparse populations won't be equally represented [source: Rudin]. While the future of the Electoral College may be uncertain, one thing isn't up for grabs: It's likely to be a controversial subject well into the future.

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