Presidential Elections

The Electoral College

How does the electoral college relate to the popular vote?

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The most important step that a person can take is a short walk to the ballot box.” Within his or her state, a person’s vote is significant. Under the electoral college system, the people do not elect the president and vice president through a direct nationwide vote, but a person’s vote helps decide which candidate receives that state’s electoral votes. It is possible that an elector could ignore the results of the popular vote, but that occurs very rarely.

The Founding Fathers devised the electoral college system as part of their plan to share power between the states and the national government. Under the federal system adopted in the U.S. Constitution, the nationwide popular vote has no legal significance. As a result, it is possible that the electoral votes awarded on the basis of state elections could produce a different result than the nationwide popular vote. The electoral vote totals determine the winner, not the statistical plurality or majority a candidate may have in the nationwide vote totals. Forty-eight out of the fifty states award electoral votes on a “winner-takes-all” basis (as does the District of Columbia), whereby the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a state wins all that state’s electoral votes.


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