What’s In a Vote? 

By: Saranya Jagadish                                                    

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Note to our Readers: 

This week we witnessed an unprecedented assault on our democracy by insurrectionists seeking to undermine the certification of our nation’s election results. This violent mob descended upon Washington D.C. at the urging of our President, who praised members of the unruly mob as “very special people,” before eventually condemning their actions and pledging an orderly transition to the incoming Biden Administration. The scenes that unfolded Wednesday were appalling, but Congress did its job by certifying the results of a free and lawful election. At the end of the day, America’s democracy is equally fragile and complex, but also resilient. The following blog post seeks to explain one of these complexities – our Electoral College

With the conclusion of another presidential election, our country’s eccentric way of selecting a leader has once again found itself under a microscope. To many, our electoral process feels confusing and outdated-and how can we blame them? After all, the Constitution of the United States of America decrees that presidents are not elected directly by the people, but rather by the people’s electors. Who do we have to thank for this system? None other than “the ten-dollar Founding Father” (and our favorite Broadway Superstar) Mr. Alexander “Not Throwing Away My Shot” Hamilton himself. Hamilton’s deep distrust of ordinary voters, combined with a fear of foreign interference in US elections, led to his formation of the Electoral College system. 


After winning independence from Britain in 1787, the Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia for the start of the Constitutional Convention. Envisioning a new style of government that blended a democracy with a republic, they set about establishing a method for choosing a new leader. The three methods initially discussed were an election or selection by congress, a popular vote, and an electoral college. Hamilton’s proposal of the Electoral College proved appealing to several other delegates at the Convention as it would mirror the way Congressional representation is divided up, with the House of Representatives decided according to each state’s population (VA has 11 members representing our commonwealth in the House of Representatives) and the Senate set at two Senators per state. Although states with smaller populations were not initially sold on the idea of this proposed breakdown, they eventually reached a compromise. They settled on a general election that would first involve a vote by all eligible citizens, followed by a second vote by electors in the Electoral College who would cast the deciding vote for president. 

While at first glance it may seem like an unnecessarily complicated method for choosing a leader, the framers believed that this would be the fairest process. The people would have a say in who would be their leader, which would prevent the same kind of revolutionary fervor that led to our conscious uncoupling from the British, but more importantly in their minds, States would be a part of the decision-making process and would have an equal amount of power amongst themselves. While that may not seem to be of much importance today, it is important to remember that in their time, States acted like independent nations that coexisted as neighbors, but were ultimately all subjects under one person, the King of England. Before the war, each state had an equal amount of power, and each state also had its own established government and leaders. In order to ensure fairness and agreement to the new laws laid out by the Constitution, not to mention ensuring the future smooth operation of actually running a country with one unified government, all of the states needed to be guaranteed an equal stake in its future and in its success. The Electoral College would therefore ensure that the most populous states would not wield more power than their lesser populated neighbors and that the richest states would not be able to exert influence over the poorest states. 

Apart from keeping the states happy, the framers believed that the Electoral College would protect the country from uninformed citizens and also prevent elites from exercising their power unfairly. See, the crux of the matter is that the framers had very little faith in the people, Congress, or state legislatures as individual entities, and refused to put their trust in them as the sole electors of the president. Instead, the Electoral College would serve as a failsafe method to ensure the American President was elected by Americans, without any form of interference or doubt. 

Established by Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College would eventually be modified twice, by the 12th and 23rd Amendments. The allotment of electoral votes is decided by the congressional representation of each state, one for each U.S. representative and senator, as well as three allocated electors for the District of Columbia. There are currently two methods in use for awarding electoral votes, with 48 states plus the District of Columbia utilizing a winner-take-all system where the winner of the state’s popular vote is awarded all of that state’s electoral votes. The two remaining states, Maine and Nebraska, use the district system, where they award one electoral vote to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in each congressional district, with their remaining two electoral votes going to the candidate who received the most votes statewide. Due to this unique format, these are the only two states where it is possible to split the electoral vote between two separate candidates. The current total number of electoral votes is 538, with the threshold (or minimum number) of electoral votes needed to win being 270. Each state is allowed to use its own method of choosing its electors (in many states until the mid-1800s, electors were selected by state legislators), with the current method favored by all states in selecting their electors being through a popular vote. 


So now that we know how the Electoral College came to be, how does it actually work, and what role do these electors play in carrying out its mission?

Electors are first nominated by their state political parties and are typically chosen for their proven loyalty to casting their vote for their party’s chosen nominee for president. When you cast your ballot in a presidential election, you may think you are voting for the nominee of your choice, but in reality, you are electing the slate of electors (those chosen by your state’s political parties), who will then cast a vote, on your behalf, for president. For example, this past election the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, Joe Biden, won the popular vote here in Virginia. Therefore, the Democratic Party’s slate of electors was elected for the sole purpose of casting Virginia’s 13 electoral votes for President for Joe Biden. Conversely, if the Republican Party’s nominee for President, Donald Trump, had won the popular vote, then the Republican Party’s slate of electors would have won and gone on to allot Virginia’s 13 electoral votes to him. 

According to federal law, electors must cast their votes on the Monday after the second Wednesday of December, with the safe harbor deadline falling six days before that. Every state has until this safe harbor deadline, to certify their vote totals, and also to resolve any ongoing litigation concerning any election result challenges, including recounts and audits. After this date, election results are considered irrefutable, and, by law (the Electoral Count Act of 1887), must be counted by Congress. To cast their votes, electors meet in their respective states and individually cast their ballots for president and vice president. These ballots are then sent to the President of the U.S. Senate, who is also the incumbent Vice President, who counts each ballot/electoral vote in front of a joint session of Congress. Following this official counting of ballots/electoral votes, the President-elect is sworn in on Inauguration Day as the new President of the United States of America!


We’ve learned about the history of the electoral college, how electors are chosen, and how election results are certified before the inauguration, and it all seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, unsurprisingly, the Framers left behind a few hidden nuggets that have thrown curveballs at an election or two, such as “Faithless Electors,” Contingent Elections, and Presidential and Vice Presidential Candidates being from the same state. The biggest curveball of all is that there are instances when the winner of the popular vote does not then go on to win the Electoral College vote. While it is true that it is very rare for the popular vote winner to not go on and reach the, now 270, electoral vote threshold, it has happened before. In fact, in our Nation’s 244-year history, such an event has occurred five times before:

  • 1824-Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams
  • 1876-Samuel J. Tilden vs. Rutherford B. Hayes
  • 1888-Grover Cleveland vs. Benjamin Harrison 
  • 2000-Al Gore vs. George W. Bush
  • 2016-Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump

In addition to this, the Electoral College has also resulted in one tie result. The Election of 1800 saw eventual President Thomas Jefferson secure the same number of electoral votes as his future Vice President, Aaron Burr. However, unlike in the five elections listed above, Jefferson and Burr were not running against one another, but rather they were running on the same ticket against the incumbent president, John Adams, and his running mate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. 


The Electoral College is seen by some as an archaic relic that has outgrown its intended purpose, and as a symbol representing, and unabashedly upholding, an imperfect system. Proponents in favor of abolishing the Electoral College all together argue that it has no place in modern society. They claim it inhibits democracy by taking the voice away from the people, instead granting more power to “land” (less-populated states). Conversely, smaller states (with lower populations) argue that they have no chance of standing on equal footing with states home to densely-populated cities, and therefore the Electoral College is the only way they can have an equal say in choosing the president. Whichever side of the argument you fall on though, there is no doubt that any change to the Electoral College would require a very lengthy and unified process. 

Fueled by the controversial elections of 2000 and 2016, where the winners of the popular vote did not go on to meet the electoral vote threshold, calls to change or abolish the Electoral College have continued to gain mainstream momentum. While Alexander Hamilton distrusted one sole group from choosing the president, remember another one of his biggest motivations in designing the Electoral College was the fear of foreign interference. With the revelation that foreign interference occurred in the 2016 presidential election, does this not strengthen the necessity, and importance, of the Electoral College in today’s world? Has Hamilton been proven to be a man before his time and right in fearing foreign governments’ interest in our electoral process? 

Alternatively, let’s approach it from a different angle. In recent years, coastal states have been ravaged by the effects of climate change, and decades of political climate inaction. The fight to control this dramatic uptick in environmental disasters, however, has been undermined by the Electoral College itself. See, while coastal states may be densely-populated, contributing to their importance when it comes to the popular vote, they simply do not carry over that same level of importance when it comes to securing electoral votes. One of the biggest unintended consequences our electoral system has created is the importance and power of swing states (primarily located in the rust-belt and not as heavily-populated). Many of these states’ economies rely on fossil fuels, fracking, and heavy industrialization, the industries most reported to have an adverse effect on our environment, and therefore presidential hopefuls rarely, if ever, take an adverse stance against them. To do so would make it very difficult for anyone to win these states’ electoral votes, and therefore to win the presidency. 

This refusal to take an explicit stance for climate action has allowed the voices- and the votes- of these states to outweigh the voices and votes of voters living in ‘politically safe’ states along the coast, the majority of whom are the ones who have been directly impacted by the deadly inaction on climate change. This is why supporters of legislation to combat climate change view the Electoral College as a hindrance to any real progress. If the Electoral College was established with the intent of being fair, can we really say things are fair as they stand right now if the heavily-industrialized jobs and livelihoods of voters in swing states are given more value by the potential leader of our nation than the livelihoods of voters inundated with one unnatural disaster after another? Can we, and do we have the right to, claim the importance of one over the other? Or rather, should we just choose our leaders with a popular vote? After all, as they are more-populated, the states directly impacted by climate change also have more people whose lives are being negatively impacted. 

For some, this year’s presidential election has only heightened a sense of distrust in the Electoral College, and in our governing institutions as a whole. However, our Electoral College, aided by a strong bipartisan narrative from legislators and election officials, proved undeterred as ever. Not only did it do its sworn duty in carrying out the will of the people, but, at least for the time being, it seems to have helped elevate the general spirit of bipartisanship that is at the crux of our nation’s soul. So, just as the Electoral College’s mere existence continues to perplex many, it would appear so does the subject of its relevance in the 21st Century. While we may not have all of the answers, or even know all of the questions to ask of its mechanisms, right now, what we can be sure of is that there is integrity in our country’s overall voting process. When we sit back and think about it, is that something that we really want to mess with?