Home » Blog » The Electoral College: How It Works


The Electoral College: How It Works

The Electoral College is an archaic contraption designed to thwart the will of the people. It’s high time to abolish it.

by Joe Hopkins



6 min read

You may be thinking that what you are about to read will turn out to be quite dry, and perhaps you will come away from this essay thinking that it was in fact ‘quite dry’! But isn’t it a good thing to latch onto something that is ‘quite dry’ if you are drowning is a roiling sea of confusion, misinformation, and misunderstanding? That is the position that I take and the reason I chose to write this essay at this time. I’m not Bernie Sanders and need not say I am a democratic socialist. Marxian socialism IS democratic socialism. Any, every, and all Marxian socialists are democratic or they are not truly Marxian! Democracy is the foundation of Marxian socialism! The World Socialist Party of the United States is a ‘Marxian’ party – not a ‘Marxist’ one!

In the United States the citizens do not vote directly for the President or Vice President of the country: the US uses a convoluted contraption called the Electoral College.

Election day for the President and Vice President of the United States, who run for those offices on a single election ticket, is the Tuesday that follows the first Monday of November in the election year.

If November 1st is a Monday, election day is Tuesday November 2nd if the first Monday in November is November 7th, election day is November 8th: election day can be no earlier than November 2nd, and no later than November 8th. This is stipulated by the Constitution of the United States.

When voters casts their ballot for candidate A to elect that presidential ticket to the Whitehouse they are in actuality casting their vote for a ‘slate of electors’ that have promised to vote for ticket A, and in most states the electoral college votes are not proportionally distributed to the candidate’s tickets based on what proportion of people vote for one ticket or another. The electoral college is a winner-take-all system: Maine and Nebraska are the only exceptions to this rule of ‘winner-take-all’.

The number of ‘electors’ that each state has is essentially the number of State House Representatives the state has — which is calculated according to the population of the state in question, plus it’s two Senators — all ‘states’ have two Senators. Several examples are: California, being a large and populous state has 53 House Representatives, plus two Senators so California has a total of 55 electoral college votes Louisiana has 7 House Representatives and 2 Senators and consequently has 9 electoral college votes Texas has 32 State House Representatives and two Senators so it has 34 electoral college votes, Florida has 25 State House Representatives and two Senators that gives Florida 27 electoral college votes. Nebraska and Maine, as mentioned, are the two exceptions. QED.

In every state apart from Nebraska and Maine, if ticket A or B gets 50% + 1 single vote of the people’s vote then that ticket gets the entirety of the electoral college votes of the state in question. Right now [June 2019], and until the next national census, required by the U.S. Constitution to be carried out every ten years, the number of electoral votes required to win the Whitehouse is 270. If no presidential ticket is able to obtain this ‘magic number’, the matter of who will win the Whitehouse goes to the states’ Houses of Representatives to be decided: the states’ Houses of Representatives act as a ‘tie-breaker’. When this happens the Representatives do not vote singly: all the Representatives’ votes are aggregated into a single vote to be cast for the ticket that has the majority of the votes in the state concerned. The state House of Representatives then casts its single aggregated vote for that candidate/ticket. Each state, regardless of size or population, gets just a single vote in a tie-breaker.

In the event of a tied electoral college vote it can be readily seen that the large states are deprived of proportionate influence on the outcome of the election. This means that the voters themselves in the separate states lose their own right to influence electing the candidate/ticket that they have deliberately chosen for President and Vice President! The voters in California or Texas, whose numbers exceed the total number of the entire population of, for example, Rhode Island, have no more influence on the election of the President and Vice President than does the State of Rhode Island.

It is important to note that the State House of Representatives continue to vote until one ticket gains a simple majority. In a tied Electoral College vote the established government, as exemplified in the institution of the State House of Representatives, votes its own preferred national leader into power, and is not bound by the citizen’s votes. The promise to vote for the ticket that achieved the majority of the popular vote carries only for the first round of voting: after that, the Representatives are free to vote for their own choice.

Another confusing thing about the American system is that Washington D.C. is in fact not a ‘state’, but a District of Columbia, and consequently has no ‘state’ Representatives nor any ‘state’ Senators and yet has 3 electoral votes when it comes to deciding which candidate/ticket will win the Presidential election: this is because the residents of Washington D.C. are taxed, which entitles them to political representation under the edicts of the US Constitution.

The winner-take-all provision in the Electoral College has tended to produce distorted election results in recent times. In 2000 George W. Bush was elected as President over Al Gore by Kathleen Harris and the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts due to the inability of Florida to provide a reliable ballot count within a reasonable amount of time. It was feared by the plutocratic ‘powers that be’ that the nation would perchance lose confidence in the electoral college election process if the counting and recounting continued on for much longer than it had already.

In the 2016 presidential election President Donald John Trump was elected by the Electoral College. More than 3,000,000 voters cast their ballot for Donald Trump’s opponent than for Donald Trump himself: Donald Trump became President through the combined votes of about 77,000 people living in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, nullifying the 3,000,000 or so votes cast for Hillary Clinton, whose main numerical majority came from the State of California. The 77,000 votes that elected Donald J. Trump as President came from the combined votes of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, a result of geography and state borders. One may wonder, ‘HOW can this happen?’

In the event that we are examining here the explanation is quite simple. The difference in the vote tallies in Pennsylvania and Michigan between Trump and Clinton was 7/10 of 1% of the popular vote that favored Trump, while the difference between these two tickets/candidates in Wisconsin was an astonishingly small 2/10 of 1% (‘tenths’ are used here to consistently maintain the lowest common denominator throughout). Trump also took the majority of the vote in Florida by a razor-thin 1.2%. Hillary Clinton swept California, winning the vast majority of its voters while narrowly failing to gain a majority of the voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

In the winner-take-all system of the Electoral College, Clinton came close to a majority in those three states that gave President Trump his electoral win but lost all of their electoral votes, which went to President Trump because of his narrow majority. Due to their geographic location and ‘state’ boundaries the roughly 77,000 voters, spread out over those three states, nullified the 3,000,000 or so voters that cast their ballots to elect Clinton. All Marxian socialists know that borders are scars on the face of the planet.

There are several aspects of the Electoral College that warrant explanations and clarifications that I believe are wise to point out here to resolve some of the confusion that surrounds the arcane workings of the Electoral College — particularly and primarily those that have confused me in past. I’ve been studying this infernal contraption now for more than ten years and am quite surprised that I can still be quite surprised by what I continue to learn about it.

One belief held by many American voters is that because the number of district Representatives (+ 2 Senators) equals the number of electoral votes each state has, each district must be sending its Representative to the state capital to vote in the Electoral College to decide who is going to become President. It does not work like that.

The electors that vote in the Electoral College can be elected Representatives who are selected either by the political party in that state, or the national Party leadership — or are chosen by, and/or from, the candidate’s own election campaign teams. One who is not familiar with the U.S. Constitution or well versed in presidential political procedure would assume that the presidential election is a national election but that assumption would be wrong. The president is elected in fifty state-wide-elections, one in each state. The U.S. Constitution gives each state sovereignty over all elections — its own and the national election of the president and vice president — as part of their ‘states’ rights,’ which are all of the rights and powers which the Constitution neither grants to the federal government nor denies to the state governments.

Nebraska and Maine

The two States that do not follow the winner-take-all policy are Nebraska and Maine: when a ballot is cast in either of these states’ elections for the presidential ticket it really is by congressional district. 

Nebraska has three congressional districts, so they have three state house Representatives that vote the preference of their district as expressed by the majority vote: these electoral votes are often split between the different election tickets. Nebraska’s two Senators vote the ‘at large’ votes for the majority of the state vote in accordance with the winner-take-all rules of the electoral college.

Maine operates in the very same way as Nebraska: Maine has only two congressional districts so they have two State House Representatives that vote in accordance with the majority of their District vote: and the two ‘at large’ voting Senators which amounts to four electoral college votes. The ‘at large’ votes are cast by the Senators in accordance with the state wide majority vote according to the winner-take-all rule of the electoral college.

An interesting enigma created by the Electoral College is that if you divide the population of a state by the number of its Representatives, California for example, each of the 55 Representatives represents about 600,000 people, while a Wyoming Representative represents about 200,000 people, so Wyoming is getting three times the representation as California! How can this system be considered even remotely democratic? Democracy to Socialists means direct representation on a one for one basis, i.e., unfiltered self-representation with the resulting equality.

Caucuses and Primary Elections

The electoral college creates what are called ‘safe states’, that is, states that contain a majority of voters that consistently vote for the same party, election after election. The presidential candidates seldom to never even campaign in these ‘safe states’ because its voters are like the proverbial lemmings that follow one another and need no urging to do so, and urging them to do so would be a waste of the candidate’s time and money. Texas reliably backs the Republican Party. California reliably backs the Democrat Party. There are other states that the two major parties consider ‘safe states’, though Texas and California are the primary powerhouses that leap to mind.

In the United States both of the major political parties hold a National Convention in the summer before the actual general election. It is at these conventions that the delegates who will vote for the prospective presidential candidate they prefer are chosen. The electors of the nominees who will stand for office in the general election are elected at the Republican and Democratic Party Conventions. 

Does this sound convoluted? It should, because it is! 

The Republican National Convention usually holds a primary election that is similar to the upcoming general election but much smaller. The putative national election is merely the sum total of the 51 state and DC elections after being combined. Some states have proportional allocation of the primary votes, and others have the winner-take-all allocation. In a primary state election if potential nominee #1 gets 40% of the primary vote and potential nominee #2 gets 30% and the other contestant gets 30%, it is nominee #1 that gets all of the electors’ votes and becomes the presidential nominee for president for that state. When the aggregate votes are calculated it is the nominee with the highest number of combined votes whom the party backs in the general election. Having the party machine backing you in the general election winnows the majority of other contenders from the field.

The Democratic National Convention tends to favor caucuses. In a caucus the potential nominees are selected over the course of several months. Caucuses are held in the first stage by 50–100 DNC people getting together at the precinct level, arguing for their favorite potential nominees, and selecting who they believe to be the strongest. That name then goes into the proverbial hat to be argued over at the county level caucus. This process continues at the state-level convention. Although the process is not strictly uniform throughout the caucus process, a nominee is always selected who has the backing of the party. From the state convention the candidate selected there will go on to toss their hat into the national arena and run for the White House.

See also my other article on this topic: ‘The Electoral College: historical background’

Photo of author

Related Articles

International relations, Politics, War

We Don’t Need This War

This is a translation of an article by a member of the Petersburg branch of the Russian group LSA, who's been engaged in discussions with members of the SPGB.

2 min read

Capitalism, Class, media, News, police, Politics

Why We Can’t Breathe

What is the significance of the mass movement of social protest? A powerful and moving commentary from the group Internationalist Perspective.

9 min read

Environment, News, Politics

Immigrants: How Many Is Too Many?

How many immigrants can the United States accommodate? -- asks Alan Johnstone (SPGB)

4 min read

History, News, police, Politics, Terror

Pogroms — from Russia to Palestine

How Palestinians are subject to a Pogrom, even today.

5 min read
Notify of
This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share to...