61. How Does The Electoral College Work?

Unlike other countries, who elect their officials through popular vote, our country uses something called the “Electoral College.” Many people, even adults, don’t really understand how it works. Today, Brittany and Connor explain the Electoral College and the role in plays in presidential elections.


  • Electoral College: A body of delegates who represent the states and exist specifically to elect the President of the United States every four years. 



Here’s a transcript of our conversation:


Connor: Hey Brittany.

Brittany: Hi Connor.

Connor: So our listeners may know we actually record these episodes kind of a couple weeks in advance. So when you and I are talking right now, it is election day, in fact, rather than glued, being glued to the news, you and I are actually working on some, you know, fun podcast. We’re

Brittany: Probably more sane for it too.

Connor: Exactly. But the time when this is coming out for the listeners, it’s been about a week and a half, since the election results came out. And so even, today that you guys are all listening, some of the results are taking a while to trickle in cuz the voting by mail is taking a while, but probably by the time you’re listening, there’s a, you know, a decision already been made. Everyone kind of knows. so it’s kind of funny. You and I don’t yet know, but the people listening, since they’re kind of fast forward a couple weeks.

Brittany: I know that they know the future kind of

Connor: Yeah, that’s fun. So we wanted to talk today about the electoral college because for the past few weeks leading up to the election, there’s been all these people sharing maps of the country, and, and they’re all like red and blue, right? We think that this is gonna be red and this is gonna be blue. And, why does that matter? Right? And so what young listeners may not know about in our system, we, we’ve talked about some of the constitutional amendments, you know, first Amendment, free speech, Second Amendment, guns, self-defense. We’ve kind of talked about the constitution, we’ve talked about the presidency, right? The executive branch, we’ve talked about the Supreme Court, the Judiciary Congress. And so we’ve been, in the past, we’ve talked about different parts of the government, but we’ve never talked about this kind of mysterious thing. This organization, if you will, this process that exists called the Electoral College. And so, you know, if you, if your family’s ever, for example, had to vote on what to have for dinner or what movie to watch, you know, usually it’s whoever has the most votes is gonna win. it’s a majority rule. And in the presidential election that’s just called, you know, the popular vote. Right? And so in, a lot of elections, it is the popular vote by which someone wins, right? Think of Congress. If you’ve got, you know, three people running for the same seat in Congress, one of them is a Democrat, one of them is a Republican, maybe the other one is a Libertarian or whatever. Whoever gets the most votes wins. It’s just kind of the popular vote. But it’s not that way with the president. For the President. It’s not the popular vote. In fact, if it was then in 2016, Donald Trump would’ve lost.

Brittany: Yep.

Connor: Because a majority of Americans actually voted for Hillary Clinton, and yet she lost. And why? Well, it’s because of the electoral college. In fact, I remember everyone was predicting Hillary’s gonna win, Hillary’s gonna win. And then when it came out that she lost a lot of her supporters were just beside themselves.

Brittany: I mean, she didn’t even come out and give a, give a cause. You usually give like a concession speech.

Connor: Oh, That’s right

Brittany: She like pouted. Cause like she, everybody thought she was going to win.

Connor: Everybody and her supporters were so confused. Wait a minute, we were trying to get as many people as possible to vote for Hillary. And now you’re telling me she lost even though she won. How does that make any sense? And the answer is the electoral college. So Brittany, what is this unique thing called the Electoral College?

Brittany: Yeah, well, before I dive right into it, first of all, it’s very confusing. That is what it is. And it took me a long time to figure it out. In fact, every college professor that tried to teach me, I had no idea what they were talking about. That. And parliament are the most confusing things in the world to me. But it’s not that bad. But one thing I do wanna say is that it’s very controversial. And there’s a lot of times, I think it was 18, 16, and 18 in 1969, where there was actually a lot of push from both parties to just get rid of it because people were so mad about it. But let’s get into what it is first. So the electoral college is a group of delegates, and that means representatives. So just like you have a congressperson or and a senator who represent you, it’s like a delegate who represents the area where you live. And they’re picked from each state. And when each voter in each state cast their vote, what they’re actually doing is kind of sending information to the delegate saying, all right, this is who you should vote for because this is where our state stands. And since the delegates represent their constituents, which is just another word for voter, they typically follow the popular vote. I think they can go against it in, rare circumstances, but they don’t typically, they go with what that popular vote is. And as Connor said in 2016, everybody was shocked because the popular vote was not the same as the electoral college.

Connor: And, so you know, if we get back to discussing how this electoral college works, what it does with this information, you know, just like every state has a different number of people in Congress based on its population, right? So California may have a ton, whereas Idaho has hardly any. Well that’s cuz there’s way more people. The House of Representatives is based on population. And so larger states are gonna have a larger delegation. In other words, a larger number of people in Congress from their state. Whereas tiny states are gonna have very few. And so the founding fathers set up, Congress that way. It’s called a bicameral legislature. bicameral legislature means like two parts

Brittany: Who might have to do a whole episode on that? Cause I don’t think we have yet.

Connor: That’s true. So, the short version is the House of Representatives is one part of Congress and the other part is the Senate. And you know, in some states and some countries in their parliament or their Congress, their legislative branch, they have a Unicameral legislature, there’s a couple of states that actually have this. They don’t have a house and a Senate. They just have, you know, an assembly or a house or whatever they call it. They just have one. But in, America most states and certainly Congress itself, they have two, the House and the Senate. So the house is based on population, but the Senate is different. And the Senate is kind of like the electoral college we’re talking about. Cuz the, well I guess not quite actually the electoral college is more like the house because the larger

Brittany: Yes.

Connor: A number of population you have, the more, house members, representatives or the larger number of delegates to the electoral college. The Senate is different in that every state gets two senators no matter how big or small you are. And so,

Brittany: But the electoral college is weird cuz you get the amount of delegates as the same amount as the congressional delegates plus two, right? For the senators, it’s kind of like a hybrid.

Connor: It is kind of a mix. And that’s where I think people start to get confused. But the point is that in the electoral college, the bigger your state is, the more, the more delegates, the more votes you’ll have. But what that means is that you know, you could have, like, let’s say the population in California is extremely high. And let’s say, just imagine that 100% of them voted for Joe Biden, that would add up to a lot of votes in terms of the total votes in America. However, they’re limited in their actual votes for Joe Biden. Yep. Because you know, no matter whether 10 million people in California voted for Joe Biden or 1 million, as long as they’re the majority, then California’s delegates in the electoral college will vote for Joe Biden. So let’s say, I don’t have the, the number pulled up right now, but like, let’s use Texas. I think Texas is like 38. And a state like Vermont is like three. So in Texas you could have, again, 10 million people voted for Trump or 1 million. It doesn’t matter the number. As long as the majority of people in Texas voted for Trump, then Trump is, you know, gets the 38.

Brittany: It’s all of ’em. Yeah.

Connor: Right? It’s kind of a winner take all. But what that means is all you have to do in each state is get the majority. So t to your knowledge, like why set this up this way? Why did the founders want to create this like different representative system? Why not just let the president be decided by the popular vote?

Brittany: You’ve actually stopped me. This is something I don’t know. I’ve been kind of one of those too because we are the only country that uses this. If you look at any other country, no one else does this. They all do popular vote. Now I am inclined to believe that the founders had a really good reason for doing most of what they did. Obviously, they were flawed, they didn’t have everything right. So I don’t know the answer to that, but I have to imagine there’s some good reason for it.

Connor: There’s at least arguments, you know, as to why it’s good and, what the found so what the founding fathers were really trying to do in a lot of what they did is to reduce power. They wanted to decentralize power and they also didn’t like democracy. Which is really funny because everyone today is always about, oh, our democracy is so great. We have to protect democracy, we have to spread democracy. Our democracy is being threatened. And like the word democracy literally does not appear in the constitution. In fact, the founding fathers almost universally hated the idea of democracy. They understood because they were much more well read than most people today. They understood looking at Greece and Rome and you know, the Bible, even like all these sources of governments and history, they understood that democracy was literally just tyranny. Yeah. It was the tyranny of the majority. And so think of the electoral college that way, right? If you are, in the minority in America, and the majority wants something else, then you would always be like the whole country would be decided by, who’s gonna become president. The president, as we’ve talked about before, has become very powerful, unfortunately. And I think that’s a, that’s a bad thing. That’s not what the founding fathers envision, but the president has become so powerful. And so if a majority of people in America wanted, let’s just use Joe Biden as an example, and you want Donald Trump, or you want someone who supports limited government or whatever, you would never be able to win. You would always be governed by a president who was supported by the majority of the country. And so this was just the electoral college was another one of the ways to kind of interrupt power to, break up democracy, to allow for different states to kind of have different, like weights, I guess you can call it. different size of influence so that, you know, if, cuz people kind of cluster, right? You look in California, very liberal state, you look at, you know, New Jersey, New York, very liberal state,

Brittany: Texas state, red state,

Connor: Right? Or Utah where I’m at Utah. And so a lot of people will cluster together. People like to live near other people who share their same values. And so inevitably you get a lot of these states where there’s kind of majority Republican here, majority, Democrat there. And if the Republican states, now, here’s the, one of the arguments I’ve heard that’s the most compelling, that the founding fathers were interested in electoral college. Think of it from their vantage point. They’re creating an entirely new country, right? And they’re creating, and what is this country? It is a union of states, different states with different backgrounds. Think of the colonies, right? Some were very religious, different religions, you know, Quakers, Protestants, a lot of them didn’t like one another. You had slave owners versus nons slave owners. Like there was a lot of differences between the colonists, but they all had in common kind of this desire for freedom and, you know, wanting to kind of live and let live in this new territory and, build their own life. So they had a lot in common. So they unified together against Britain, they won and they have this opportunity to create a new country. They create a constitution. We, we know all these things. What’s the point? The point is that this was a very fragile experiment, right? There was no guarantee that this country would survive. They’re trying to unify all of these different colonies or, states. Now if you are trying to create a process where the person in charge of the entire federal government, the brand new federal government gets to kind of rule over everyone and be picked by the majority, then you run the risk that the states that, that don’t like that guy would leave. So let’s share an example, we’ve talked a few episodes back about like the Federalist Party right? And the Democrat-Republicans, these were kind of the early political parties. this is not actual history, these numbers don’t work. But just to use an example, imagine that you’re Thomas Jefferson and you have the Democrat, republican, party. And there are two states in the union that are very like-minded. The people there, the local, you know, legislatures are, are mostly members of your party. People who believe like you have all moved there. So let’s say there’s two out of the, you know, 13 plus states that we’re forming, that are Democrat, Republican, and all the other states are pro-federalist. Okay? So if you’re the two states that are Democratic Republican and you are always going to be ruled by a federalist president who’s gonna veto what you like, he’s gonna campaign against you, he’s gonna pass executive orders that you hate, right? Then as a state that’s very different of opinion. You might start to think, ah, like maybe this union thing isn’t for us. If you as a state don’t really have a say. Like if your people you know, don’t really have a say because the majority of everyone else believes differently. So I kind of feel like that’s one of the stronger arguments where there’s this, unity of different states that are like-minded. And if we don’t create a way to kind of level the playing field, but like in Congress we have it cuz the states all have equal representation in the Senate. Obviously there’s a big difference in the house. Yes. But the Senate is where the states kind of have that level playing field, right? And so in terms of the president picking the president, I feel like the ultimate idea was creating a similar process where the states could have a little bit more, I’ll use the word fairness right, between them so that different states wouldn’t be incentivized to be like, we’re gonna forever be ruled by a president from the other party. You know, I’m gonna take my ball and go home. Let’s go find something else. Let’s start our own country. And so that’s at least one of the arguments why giving the states more influence rather than just letting it be all Americans voting together as the popular vote. That’s kind of a reason I think to have the electoral college.

Brittany: That’s interesting. I actually did not know that at all. So I, learned a bit of history today and I believe it’s how many so candidate to win us to get 270 electoral college vote, I think.

Connor: Yep.

Brittany: Okay, so it’s still not a majority either, it’s just, that’s just the magical number, right?

Connor: well that is, that’s a good question. That is the, 50% plus one. So it is the majority of total delegates. So you still kinda have that like majority vote, but by, capping certain states, like sorry liberals, if you all moved to California, no matter how many of you voted for Joe Biden, your state is like, if liberals were smart just to use them as an example, they would spread out, right? The way to make sure that your guy is president is to go, you know, move into all the different states and, have influence there. But if they all cluster together, you know, then they’re not gonna have any more power for the president because no matter how many liberals in in California vote for Joe Biden, it’s still just that same number of, votes that California gets.

Brittany: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And it’s gonna be, well you guys already know what happened. I guess I’m just sitting here thinking about like, wow, tonight’s gonna be rough. But you guys already know what happened,

Connor: Fast forward and soon enough we’ll find out. So Brittany and I have to be patient, you guys all know and I’m sure we’ll be doing episodes on what life looks like in, the months and years ahead with the kind of government we’re gonna be living under. You know, in a future episode, we should probably talk about how local elections are far more important. Yes, what’s really interesting is that everyone’s attention’s been on the race for president. But you know, even though the president does have a lot of power and way more than he should, he or she should, you know, local races have way more power over our lives. Way, way, way more power. And yet hardly anyone pays attention to him. So we should talk about that in a few future episodes. There’s a lot of insights to be had there on focusing on and even helping, local elections. So we’ll talk about that next time. For now, make sure you guys are subscribed. We appreciate you listening, and until next time, Brittany, we’ll talk to you later.

Brittany: Talk to you later.

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