Account Login

51,404,163 Views
May 17, 2015
Presented by
Tara Ross

Do you understand what the Electoral College is? Or how it works? Or why America uses it to elect its presidents instead of just using a straight popular vote? Author, lawyer and Electoral College expert Tara Ross does, and she explains that to understand the Electoral College is to understand American democracy.

The Electoral College makes it harder for a candidate to steal an election.

  • The Electoral College makes it harder to steal elections because votes must be stolen in the right state in order to change the outcome of the Electoral College. With so many swing states, this is hard to predict and hard to do.View Source
  • Without the Electoral College, any vote stolen in any precinct in the country could affect the national outcome — even if that vote was easily stolen in the bluest California precinct or the reddest Texas one.View Source

Without the Electoral College, minority groups and those living outside big cities would play less of a role in elections.

  • The electoral system ensures that campaigns remain national in scope and focus on building broad bases of support.View Source
  • Not having the Electoral College would tilt the scales in favor of large, densely populated states, such as California, New York, and Florida, and away from rural areas.View Source

The Electoral College empowers states by allowing them to set their own rules.

  • Each state may decide how it will apportion the electoral votes it possesses.View Source
  • Currently all states except for Maine and Nebraska have a winner-take-all system.View Source
  • Read Electoral College expert Tara Ross on the election process.View Source

The Electoral College empowers the states, making sure that even the smallest states still have a fair say.

  • Each state is allowed one electoral vote for each representative in Congress, guaranteeing a minimum of three electoral votes per state, which is designed to give smaller states greater weight than they would have by a straight population allotment.View Source
  • Read Electoral College expert Tara Ross on the election process.View Source

The Electoral College forces presidential candidates to keep their campaigns national in scope.

  • The electoral system ensures that campaigns remain national in scope and focus on building broad bases of support.View Source
  • Not having the Electoral College would tilt the scales in favor of large, densely populated states, such as California, New York, and Florida, and away from rural areas.View Source

The Founders created the Electoral College to avoid the failures of past democracies and the tyranny of the majority.

  • The Founding Fathers were highly suspicious of a pure democracy because it allowed for a tyranny of the majority—threatening the rights of minorities by providing no way to protect the property or personal security of those outside the majority.View Source
  • James Madison argued that pure democracy holds minority groups in tyranny to majorities.View Source
  • Alexander Hamilton wrote that "ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity."View Source
  • John Adams wrote that "democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."View Source
  • Read legal expert Tara Ross on the importance of the Electoral College.View Source

In order to prevent the “tyranny of the majority,” the Electoral College offers both a purely democratic vote and also one among electors.

  • The first round of voting, comprised of 51 purely democratic state and territory elections, determines the delegates who will represent that state in the second round of the voting process.View Source
  • In the second round of voting, each state sends its representatives to the Electoral College to cast votes for the next president, requiring a majority of 270 electoral votes to win.View Source
  • Read Electoral College expert Tara Ross on the election process.View Source

Ending the Electoral College system would allow presidential campaigns to be more geographically and ideologically narrow.

  • Measures such as the National Popular Vote argue that the majority vote is all that should matter, but they would make it more likely that presidential majorities will be “geographically or ideologically narrow.”View Source
  • The candidate who won the Electoral College vote has also won the popular vote in every election but three. In other words, in the end, the system does generally represent the popular will.View Source

I want to talk you about the Electoral College and why it matters.

Alright, I know this doesn't sound the like most sensational topic of the day, but, stay with me because, I promise you, it's one of the most important.

To explain why requires a very brief civics review. 

The President and Vice President of the United States are not chosen by a nationwide, popular vote of the American people; rather, they are chosen by 538 electors. This process is spelled out in the United States Constitution.

Why didn't the Founders just make it easy, and let the Presidential candidate with the most votes claim victory? Why did they create, and why do we continue to need, this Electoral College?

The answer is critical to understanding not only the Electoral College, but also America. 

The Founders had no intention of creating a pure majority-rule democracy. They knew from careful study of history what most have forgotten today, or never learned: pure democracies do not work. 

They implode. 

Democracy has been colorfully described as two wolves and a lamb voting on what's for dinner. In a pure democracy, bare majorities can easily tyrannize the rest of a country. The Founders wanted to avoid this at all costs. 

This is why we have three branches of government -- Executive, Legislative and Judicial. It's why each state has two Senators no matter what its population, but also different numbers of Representatives based entirely on population. It's why it takes a supermajority in Congress and three-quarters of the states to change the Constitution.

And, it's why we have the Electoral College.  

Here's how the Electoral College works.

The Presidential election happens in two phases. The first phase is purely democratic. We hold 51 popular elections every presidential election year: one in each state and one in D.C. 

On Election Day in 2012, you may have thought you were voting for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, but you were really voting for a slate of presidential electors.  In Rhode Island, for example, if you voted for Barack Obama, you voted for the state's four Democratic electors; if you voted for Mitt Romney you were really voting for the state's four Republican electors.

Part Two of the election is held in December. And it is this December election among the states' 538 electors, not the November election, which officially determines the identity of the next President.  At least 270 votes are needed to win.

Why is this so important?

Because the system encourages coalition-building and national campaigning. In order to win, a candidate must have the support of many different types of voters, from various parts of the country. 

Winning only the South or the Midwest is not good enough. You cannot win 270 electoral votes if only one part of the country is supporting you.

But if winning were only about getting the most votes, a candidate might concentrate all of his efforts in the biggest cities or the biggest states. Why would that candidate care about what people in West Virginia or Iowa or Montana think?

But, you might ask, isn't the election really only about the so-called swing states? 

Actually, no. If nothing else, safe and swing states are constantly changing. 

California voted safely Republican as recently as 1988. Texas used to vote Democrat. Neither New Hampshire nor Virginia used to be swing states. 

Most people think that George W. Bush won the 2000 election because of Florida. Well, sort of. But he really won the election because he managed to flip one state which the Democrats thought was safe: West Virginia. Its 4 electoral votes turned out to be decisive. 

No political party can ignore any state for too long without suffering the consequences. Every state, and therefore every voter in every state, is important. 

The Electoral College also makes it harder to steal elections. Votes must be stolen in the right state in order to change the outcome of the Electoral College. With so many swing states, this is hard to predict and hard to do. 

But without the Electoral College, any vote stolen in any precinct in the country could affect the national outcome -- even if that vote was easily stolen in the bluest California precinct or the reddest Texas one.

The Electoral College is an ingenious method of selecting a President for a great, diverse republic such as our own -- it protects against the tyranny of the majority, encourages coalition building and discourages voter fraud. Our Founders were proud of it!  We can be too.

I'm Tara Ross for Prager University.

You Earned A Badge

Course: Do You Understand the Electoral College?

Join PragerU now to claim it

  1. Watch The Video
  2. Claim Your Badge
  3. Take the Quiz
  4. Gild Your Badge

Like what you see? Support PragerU today