50 interesting facts about the Electoral College

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October 20, 2020
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50 interesting facts about the Electoral College

The 2020 presidential election is fast approaching, and it is sure to be a major event of the 21st century and in the history of the United States. However, did you know that when you cast your vote on Election Day, you’re actually voting for the electors who will represent your state in the Electoral College?

While voters contribute to the nation’s popular vote, the Electoral College is where representatives from every state and the District of Columbia (but not American territories) cast their votes for president. To win, a presidential candidate must receive 270 electoral votes. In effect, a typical electoral vote represents over 600,000 American citizens!

Established at the Founding Fathers’ Constitutional Convention of 1787, the College was established with the aim of avoiding the overuse of partisan politics. It has survived three amendments, electors who went against their promised votes, and many attempts to abolish or change its makeup entirely.

For instance, did you know that it could have been abolished way back in the year 1968? While Republicans tend to be more in favor of the system than Democrats, many Americans also support utilizing the popular vote. Some states, as well as the District of Columbia, have even pledged to give their electoral votes to whoever wins the state’s popular election.

Although electors are typically composed of those already connected to their state’s politics (whether through a party or through donorship), it’s important to be informed about how this specific branch of our democracy functions to produce the next president.

Stacker compiled 50 interesting facts about the Electoral College using a variety of different, thoroughly factual news, research, and government reports.

As you spend the next two weeks making a voting plan and checking in with friends and family about theirs, take a moment to learn about how this not-so-academic College influences our national politics, and how it could potentially change and evolve in the future.

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The Electoral College system was created in 1787

It was established as part of the Constitutional Convention. Additionally, it was the work of the Founding Fathers, who were also obviously responsible for the Constitution.

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Many Southern politicians supported its creation

This support largely originated out of fear. At the time, Southern politicians were worried that a direct popular vote would lessen the South’s influence, since a great deal of its population was non-voting enslaved people.

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At least four alternatives were proposed

Attendees of the Constitutional Convention had some other ideas for how to ultimately choose the president and vice president. They included election by Congress, election by state legislatures, election by state governors, and direct election by voters.

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The Electoral College was meant to discourage partisanship

In creating the system, the Founding Fathers aimed to ensure that partisan politics wouldn’t dominate our country’s electoral process. Instead, they hoped that electors would choose the best man running, regardless of party membership.

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The Holy Roman Empire used a similar system

Princes from various states gathered to choose the next Holy Roman Emperor through a vote. The idea for the “college” actually comes from the historic College of Cardinals, who determine who becomes Catholic Church’s pope.

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Slavery is ultimately tied to the Electoral College

At the time, the process of allocating congresspeople (who are tied to the number of a state’s electors) was tied to the 3/5 Compromise, in which each enslaved person in a state counted as a fraction of a person when apportioning congressional seats. This gave Southern states with many enslaved people more power. But it did not give enslaved people the vote.

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Alexander Hamilton supported the Electoral College

Hamilton argued that while it might not be perfect, it was “at least excellent.” In the Federalist Papers, he wrote that the point of the College is to preserve “the sense of the people,” while also making sure that the president is chosen by “men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station.”

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Many proposals have called for its abolishment

Over 700 proposals to amend or abolish the system have been introduced since its inception. That means that more Constitutional amendment proposals have been introduced relating to the Electoral College than any other subject.

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Presidents need the Electoral College majority vote

A presidential candidate can only win if they receive 270 electoral votes. If they receive any less, they will not have secured the majority vote.

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Voters don't vote directly for presidential candidates

Instead, on election day, American voters cast their ballots to determine a presidential candidate’s electors. These people have already been chosen by each party’s leaders.

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It has been increasingly scrutinized in recent decades

This is largely because of the controversial outcomes of the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections. In both, the winners of the presidency (George W. Bush and Donald Trump) won the electoral college vote, but lost the popular vote.

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California has the most electoral votes

The state has 55 electoral votes. These include one each for California’s two senators and 53 members of the House of Representatives.

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There have been 167 cases of "faithless electors"

A “faithless elector” is someone who votes for someone other than their political party’s candidate. For instance, in the 1796 election, Federalist elector Samuel Miles voted for Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson.

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Faithless electors can be punished

Some states are allowed to punish faithless electors with fines or jail time. However, electors aren’t bound by federal law to vote for their party’s candidate by law, and their vote must be accepted either way.

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Electors can’t gather in one location

Instead, electors meet at their respective state capitals. They don’t meet in one spot as a preventative measure against corruption or conspiratorial gathering.

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Electors have voted for a dead man

In 1872, Democratic candidate Horace Greeley died after Election Day, but before the Electoral College voted. Three votes were cast for Greeley, but Congress did not count them.

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The Holy Roman Empire used a similar system

Holy Roman Empire leaders were elected by a college of electors from different states. This practice continued from the 12th century to the 18th century.

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Electoral votes are allocated according to the Census

The number of electoral votes can change every 10 years, based on Census results. The current allocations are based on the 2010 Census, and are effective for the 2012, 2016, and 2020 presidential elections.

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Three is the lowest number of electoral votes

The seven least populous states—Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming—each have three electors. The District of Columbia is also allocated three electors.

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The electoral college votes on a set date

There is a brief time gap between the general election and the Electoral College vote. The electors meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December following the general election.

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Ties mean that the House of Representatives intervenes

If nobody gets a majority or there’s a tie, then it’s up to the House of Representatives to decide the election. Each state’s lawmakers get one vote each.

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More Americans support the popular vote

In a June 2018 PRRI/Atlantic survey, 65% of Americans surveyed said that they support electing the president by popular vote. In contrast, 32% said that they preferred the Electoral College.

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The Electoral College could have been abolished in 1969

In that year, a proposal to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote system passed the House. However, it was ultimately filibustered in the Senate.

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The Electoral College has been changed three times

The Electoral College was first amended when the 12th Amendment was passed in 1803. Further changes occurred when the 20th Amendment was passed in 1932 and the 23rd Amendment was passed in 1960.

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Voters in non-state territories get no electoral votes

Voters in non-state territories like Puerto Rico aren’t allocated any electors. However, citizens of these territories can take part in presidential primaries.

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Most states have a winner-takes-all electoral vote system

This means that the winner of the popular vote receives all of the state’s electoral votes. When the election ends, the governor declares the winning candidate and which electors will represent the state.

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The 12th Amendment was passed after a tie election

This law was introduced after the tie election of 1800. The Amendment ultimately made it so that electors vote for a president and vice president, instead of for two presidential candidates.

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The 20th Amendment changed term limits

Before the 20th Amendment was passed, the president and vice president’s terms ended on March 4. However, this law made it so that their terms now end on January 20.

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The 23rd Amendment gave D.C. electors

Through this amendment, the District of Columbia was granted electoral votes. Currently, the District has three electors.

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The date of the vote count has changed

The date of the Electoral College count was changed in 1957, 1985, 1989, 1997, 2009, and 2013. In 2020, the date is December 14.

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There are exceptions to the “winner-take-all” system

The only exceptions to this rule are Maine and Nebraska. Instead, they implement a “proportional representation” system.

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Popular vote winners don't always become president

There have been five instances in which the winner of the popular vote has not become president. Instead, the electoral college winner came away victorious. These cases include the 1824 election, the 1876 election, the 1888 election, the 2000 election, and the 2016 election.

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Originally, Congress could have chosen the president

The original debate at the Constitutional Convention focused on whether or not Congress should choose the president, not whether the popular vote or Electoral College should determine the outcome. The convention ultimately voted that Congress should elect the president at the time.

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The College wasn’t designed to protect states’ rights

It’s a common misconception that the Electoral College was designed with the protection of federalism and states’ rights in mind. However, while the College allows state legislatures to decide how electors are chosen, it wasn’t designed to protect the influence of state governments.

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There are 538 electors

Of these electors, 535 represent the total number of congressional members. The remaining three represent Washington D.C.

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Electoral College ties are unlikely, but not impossible

Because of the winner-takes-all system in place in most states, it’s unlikely that a presidential election tie will occur. However, this happened in 1800, when two candidates received exactly 73 electoral votes.

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One electoral vote represents about 607,000 people

The current United States population is around 331 million people. However, it depends on the state’s population—one electoral vote in Wyoming amounts to around 193,000 people, while one vote in California represents over 700,000 people.

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The Electoral College has created battleground states

This means that candidates target certain states with more votes up for grabs, in hopes of increasing their electoral chances. Key 2020 battleground states include Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and Georgia.

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It has elected candidates with a plurality

Some presidents actually received a plurality of the popular vote (or less than 50 percent). Cases of this include Abraham Lincoln in 1860, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

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States can require electors to abide by candidates

In July 2020, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states can require electors to stand by their promise to support a specific candidate. Electors who violate their pledges in these states can be removed or punished.

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Many electors aren't allowed to change their votes

Even before the recent Supreme Court decision, 32 states and the District of Columbia already had laws requiring electors to vote as promised. Other states replace electors and cancel their votes.

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There were seven faithless electors in 2016

Five of them were Democrats, and two were Republicans. This number constituted the most “faithless electors” in history, with electors voting for candidates like Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, and Colin Powell on the ballot.

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Some states penalize faithless electors

In Oklahoma, a faithless elector can face a misdemeanor charge. In New Mexico, electors who abandon their pledge can be charged with a felony.

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It’s not a college in the educational sense

Instead, the “college” in Electoral College refers to a collegium (group of colleagues). Overall, “college” in this context designates a group of people who are associated with a common pursuit.

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Choosing electors can be an “insider’s game”

Electors are often already heavily involved in state politics. According to University of Baltimore professor Kimberly Wehle, electors tend to be party leaders, state legislators, or donors.

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Democrats like it less than Republicans

According to Gallup, although 61% of Americans support abolishing the Electoral College, this support is largely divided among political parties. This support comes from 23% of Republicans, but 89% of Democrats.

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The College could be changed through a constitutional amendment

This requires two-thirds approval from the House and the Senate. It then requires ratification by a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of the state legislatures, or the states themselves.

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It could go to the Supreme Court

University of Baltimore Professor Kimberly Wehle said that an election case could go to the Supreme Court. “It only takes five people with life tenure to actually amend this Constitution through a judicial opinion,” she noted.

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Some want to reduce its importance without amendments

The District of Columbia and 15 states, which control 196 electoral votes, signed onto an interstate compact. This means that they pledge to grant their votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

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Republicans benefit from the College

A big reason why Republicans overwhelmingly support the Electoral College is that the party benefits from many rural states’ electoral numbers. States like Tennessee, Louisiana, and Kentucky are solid Republican states.

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