What is the electoral college and why does it matter?

Counting electoral votesU.S. Vice President and President of the Senate Dick Cheney (R) hands the Electoral College ballot certificate from Ohio to Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA) during the counting of electoral votes the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington, DC. Congress met in a joint session to tally the Electoral College votes and certify Barack Obama to be the winner of the 2008 presidential election Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With the Republican and Democratic fields narrowing fast, the electoral college has become a more relevant talking point. But what is the electoral college? And why does it matter?

The electoral college, as you might have learned in junior high, was born out of a compromise at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There was discussion about electing the president and vice president by popular vote, by a vote of Congress, by state governors, by state legislatures and various other methods. Eventually, a committee within the convention proposed the system we have today. It was widely accepted by convention attendees.

Enter the Electors

So here’s how it works: each state gets a set amount of electors. The total is based on the population of each state. So the higher population a state has, the more electors it gets. These electors (unlike delegates in the primary season) are usually referred to by their votes. The phrase “electoral votes” probably rings a bell.

There is a total of 538 electoral votes. This number comes from the total seats in the House of Representatives (438) and in the Senate (100) combined. To win, a candidate must receive at least 270 electoral votes.

When you cast your ballot for a candidate in November, you are actually voting for state electors. These electors then go on to vote for your candidate in December. While you may worry about these electors straying from their assigned candidate, it is rare, almost unheard of even, for the electors go against the popular vote results in any state.

Except for Maine and Nebraska, every state has a winner-take-all system for awarding its electoral votes.

So whoever wins the popular vote in a given state wins every single electoral vote it has to offer. Maine and Nebraska have a proportional system in place. The top vote-getter receives two votes for the state’s senators and then the rest are decided by the state’s congressional districts. Nebraska and Maine each have five and four electoral votes respectively. It is unprecedented for these states to be a deciding factor in an election.

Popular vs. Electoral

During the general election, you may hear discussion of the popular vote versus the electoral vote. What’s the difference? The popular vote is a simple tally of all the votes cast across the country. In any other election, a candidate wins by receiving at least 51 percent of the popular vote. For presidential elections, a candidate can only win if he or she receives at least 270 electoral votes.

It is possible to lose the popular vote, but win the electoral vote and therefore the presidency. This is what ended up happening in the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Gore won the popular vote, but Bush won the electoral vote.

After hearing this, some people might feel cheated. How can someone win the support of a majority of the country and not be elected president? That doesn’t seem fair, right? This is usually the argument against the electoral college. The people are getting short changed by the electoral college.

On the other side, proponents argue the electoral college actually gives small states more say in presidential elections. While the bigger states with higher electoral vote totals would be more attractive to the candidates, many of these are not usually in play during the general election. Since 1992, California has supported Democrats while Texas has historically voted for Republicans. In a close election, every electoral vote counts. If a race is more competitive, the smaller states start to matter. This eventuality just would not happen if presidential elections were decided by a popular vote.

Does Your Vote Count?

There are some Americans who feel a little squeamish about a group of anonymous electors choosing their president. That’s a reasonable concern, but this situation isn’t actually what the electoral college does. Your vote matters because each state’s popular vote is what determines who the electors are. All the electors are really doing is following in your footsteps. So yes, your vote does count.