What is the Electoral College and Why Does It Matter?

For more than two hundred years, the United States has enjoyed a uniquely successful existence. One of the reasons for this is the Electoral College, which unifies, moderates, and protects American politics.

Indeed our greatest crisis, the American Civil War, occurred only when other political forces overcame the incentives created by the Electoral College that favor moderate, two-party politics and national unity.

The Electoral College is, to be exact, a group of representatives (Electors) chosen in each state who cast the official ballots (electoral votes) for President of the United States. Each state gets as many Electors as it has members of the U.S. House and Senate.

Before the presidential election, each political party nominates the people they want to become that state’s Electors—people who pledge to cast electoral votes for that party’s presidential candidate. When citizens vote in a presidential election, we are really voting for our candidate’s Electors—if our candidate wins in our state, those Electors will represent us in the Electoral College, casting their electoral votes for our candidate.

Every once in a while, an Elector doesn’t vote the way he or she pledged (so-called “faithless” Electors), but this has never come close to effecting the outcome of an election. Also, while most states select all their Electors based on which presidential candidate gets the most votes statewide (“winner-takes-all”), Nebraska and Maine choose their Electors by who wins in each congressional district, with the two remaining elected statewide.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College as a way to minimize the risks of corruption, regionalism, and back-room politics in the selection of the nation’s executive. A national popular vote was rejected because it offered no protection against regional candidates and could be more easily manipulated by special interests or charismatic demagogues.

The Electoral College forces candidates to build national support, unifying rather than dividing the country. In fact, the Electoral College probably works even better than the Framers hoped.

Because most states choose electors by “winner-takes-all,” presidential candidates must have both a base of states where a majority of voters support the candidate and then reach out into the most moderate, evenly balanced states to build enough support for an Electoral College majority. The Electoral College turns swing states into microcosms of America, where candidates are forced to go beyond the big cities andreach out toall kinds of people.

The system forces campaign strategists both to build national campaigns and to focus their outreach in the most politically balanced states. While the Electoral College does not require a two-party system, it creates a healthy incentive for people to build the large coalitions that usually result in two big, diverse political parties.

To become President, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes—currently 270 out of 538. If no candidate has a majority, the election goes to the U.S. House of Representatives and each state casts a single vote; Thomas Jefferson (1800) and John Quincy Adams (1824) were elected this way.

The Electoral College is like a stabilizer for American politics, one of the reasons why the United States has been such a remarkably successful nation. The Electoral College unites us by recognizing and respecting the unique roll of states in our federal system.

Writing in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton acknowledged that while the Electoral College may not be perfect, “it is at least excellent.”

What is the National Popular Vote? 

National Popular Vote (NPV) is a San Francisco-based lobbying organization founded, chaired, and funded by computer scientist Dr. John Koza. It is also the name of Dr. Koza’s plan to change how we elect the President of the United States.

NPV challenges the long-held belief that a constitutional amendment is necessary to change the presidential election process. Instead, Dr. Koza would create an interstate compact where states that pass his legislation agree to disregard the vote count in their state and instead appoint Electors who support the winner of the national vote. Because the Constitution gives state legislatures power to appoint their electors, there is a chance NPV would be upheld by the courts, even though the original intent was to allow each state to best represent the will of its own citizens in presidential elections.

The compact would take effect if passed by states with a total of 270 or more electoral votes—a majority, and thus enough to control who becomes president. NPV would leave the Electoral College structure in place, but eliminate its effects and therefore do away with its benefits.

Part of the genius of the Electoral College is that it turns the fifty states into the equivalent of fifty watertight compartments on an ocean liner: a problem in one compartment—or state—can be isolated and then fixed, without detriment to the entire ship . . . or country. NPV would make American presidential elections the electoral equivalent of the Titanic.

Because NPV is an end-run around the constitutional amendment process, it cannot create an authentic national election. It establishes no national standards for candidates, ballots, voters, and counting or recounting the votes. Yet the imposition of NPV would lead to demand for standardizing—and likely nationalizing—election rules and administration.

The NPV proposal would also allow a candidate to win without any sort of majority, making it more likely that future Presidents would be elected with smaller and smaller pluralities (for example, under NPV you might have five serious candidates and the winner could receive less than a third, or even less than a quarter, of the national vote).

NPV is a clever political tactic for Electoral College opponents frustrated by the hard work required to change the Constitution.But clever tactics are often bad public policy—Dr. Koza’s NPV plan would manipulate the Electoral College and endanger election integrity.It would eliminate the practical benefits of the role of states in the presidential election process.

Dr. Koza’s first foray into politics was to convince state legislatures to adopt lotteries using his patented scratch-off ticket (and then to pay royalties back to Dr. Koza). NPV is an even bigger gamble.

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Why Save our States?

The genius of the United States of America: we are both United and States. The American system of states is Federalism. One part of it is the Electoral College, the state-by-state way we elect the President of the United States.

Some 'reformers' want to unravel our system of states. The Freedom Foundation’s Save Our States Project is dedicated to preserving these structures for the sake of liberty. Find out more and join us.