The Electoral College: Why Do We Do It This Way? : Consider This from NPR The electoral college is a system unlike any other in American democracy. Why does it exist? Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah explored that question on a recent episode of NPR's history podcast, Throughline. Find them on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

NPR senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving explains why more Republicans now support the electoral college — and whether that's likely to change.

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The Electoral College: Why Do We Do It This Way?

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The Electoral College: Why Do We Do It This Way?

The Electoral College: Why Do We Do It This Way?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You remember 2016 - the map slowly filling in, Donald Trump creeping toward the magic number.

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WOLF BLITZER: Look at how close he is. Right now, he has 257 electoral votes. He needs 13 more - 270 - to be elected president of the United States.

CORNISH: Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona and eventually...

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BLITZER: Right now, a historic moment. We can now project the winner of the presidential race. CNN projects Donald Trump wins the presidency.

CORNISH: Hillary Clinton would end up with nearly 3 million more votes, but the president is chosen by the Electoral College. So 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin delivered the presidency to Trump.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The senator from California.

BARBARA BOXER: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Shortly after the election in 2016, Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, introduced a bill to throw out the Electoral College.

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BOXER: We should do away with it and go to a system where the winner wins - how unique.

CORNISH: Like hundreds of other attempts before, it went nowhere.

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BOXER: The winner wins, and the loser loses.

CORNISH: Later tonight or tomorrow or sometime in the next few weeks, Joe Biden or Donald Trump will appear to have enough electoral votes to win the presidency.

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BOXER: The candidate who wins the most votes can still lose the election. There isn't any elected office in the nation - be it county level, city level, state level, national level - where this is true.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - in America, some votes for president count more than others. The story of why goes back to our founding, and it's not a story most of us are taught in school. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Election Day, Tuesday, November 3.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Hey, it's a little quirky, but that's just the way it is.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) E-L-E-C-T-O-R-A-L.

CORNISH: That's the lesson a lot of American kids get taught about the Electoral College.

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JACK SHELDON: (Singing) When you pull down on my levers for the person of your choice, you're also choosing state electors who will have the final voice. They're called the Electoral College.

CORNISH: Well, here are the basics. For every member of the House and Senate a state has, that state also gets an elector. And those are real people, some picked by party leadership or at party conventions. And there are 538 of them. After an election, they get together in December and vote for the candidate who won their state. And the candidate with the majority of electors, 270, wins the election. It's a system that makes swing states way more important and makes it possible for a candidate to win the presidency, even if that candidate loses the popular vote.

So the story of why we do it this way starts in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. That's where NPR's Ramtin Arablouei...

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: That's me.

CORNISH: ...And Rund Abdelfatah...

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Hi, that's me.

CORNISH: ...Went back to look at how we landed on this complicated system and how it's persisted. Rund and Ramtin are the host of NPR's history podcast Throughline, and they've done a whole episode on the Electoral College. We're going to share an excerpt with you now. Rund and Ramtin, take it from here.

ARABLOUEI: So the framers of the Constitution spent a lot of time debating this question - how should the president be chosen?

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AKHIL REED AMAR: The presidency is perhaps the hardest nut to crack at Philadelphia.

ARABLOUEI: That's Akhil Reed Amar, a professor at Yale University Law School and author of "Law Of The Land: A Grand Tour Of Our Constitutional Republic."

ABDELFATAH: And while a direct popular vote might seem like an obvious solution, at the time, there were a bunch of objections. Some just thought you couldn't trust the people at large with a choice so important.

ARABLOUEI: The people should be in air quotes here because, really, only white landowning men were allowed to vote.

ABDELFATAH: Others argued that because different states had different population sizes, it wouldn't be fair to let big states have all the say.

ARABLOUEI: The other big obstacle to a popular vote for president...

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AMAR: In one word, slavery. The fundamental problem with direct election is the South will lose every time because a huge percentage of its population are enslaved people. And, obviously, slaves won't be voting.

ARABLOUEI: And this is where the Three-Fifths Compromise comes in.

ABDELFATAH: Here's how it worked. In order to pad their population numbers, Southern states wanted enslaved people in their states to count. Why? Well, because the bigger your state's population, the more money you'd receive from the federal budget and the more representation you'd get in Congress - more people, more money, more power.

ARABLOUEI: But the Northern states were like, wait a minute. So you don't consider enslaved people to be humans because you treat them like chattel, but you want to count them toward your populations? That isn't going to work for us.

ABDELFATAH: And the Southern states were basically like, well, we don't give a damn what works for you. If you want us to be part of the Union, we're going to need our enslaved people counted.

ARABLOUEI: And so after a series of debates, Northern delegates reached a deal with Southerners. Enslaved people would count as three-fifths of a human being towards the population numbers.

ABDELFATAH: I know. It's really disturbing. OK, so back to the Constitutional Convention. Many delegates from slaveholding states wanted that racialized population calculus carried over to electing the president. Direct popular vote wasn't going to work. Instead, they landed on a plan for a representative body to elect the president, a kind of mini Congress. They didn't give it a name at the time, but it would come to be called the Electoral College.

AMAR: We're not going to elect a president by direct popular vote. Instead, each state will be assigned a number of electors based on the number of seats that it has in the House of Representatives plus the number of seats it has in the Senate.

ABDELFATAH: That meant Southern states, with their huge enslaved populations and the representatives that went with them, locked in an advantage.

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CAROL ANDERSON: The Electoral College is really about the fears of the Southern states at the founding of this nation that the larger Northern states would dominate.

ABDELFATAH: This is Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University.

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ANDERSON: They wanted guardrails all the way through the Constitution that would protect slaveholder power.

ARABLOUEI: The Electoral College outlasted slavery. After the Civil War, three-fifths became five-fifths. The Southern states gained even more electoral clout even though they systematically kept Black citizens from voting. Over the years, hundreds of amendments were proposed to change the Electoral College. None of them really got that close to being passed - that is, until the presidential election of 1968.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Well, it's midnight in the East. And all we know right now about the presidential race is that it is very, very close. It may be the closest in our history.

ARABLOUEI: There were three candidates in the race - Republican former Vice President Richard Nixon, Democrat and current Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a third-party candidate named George Wallace.

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GEORGE WALLACE: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

ABDELFATAH: His campaign centered on stirring up the fears of white voters all over the country.

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ALEX KEYSSAR: It looks like there's a very good chance that he will win enough states in order to prevent either Nixon or Humphrey from getting an Electoral College majority.

ABDELFATAH: That's Alex Keyssar, a Harvard professor and author of "Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?"

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KEYSSAR: He would basically trade the votes he controlled for a commitment to go slow or reverse things on civil rights and voting rights.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: At almost midday Eastern Time, NBC News projected Richard Nixon for 37th president of the United States when it became evident he had tied Illinois. Final returns may...

ABDELFATAH: So the election happens, and the political establishment's worst fears didn't come to pass. Nixon won the Electoral College decisively. But George Wallace's candidacy and the tight popular vote were enough to push Congress to consider an amendment to the Constitution that would essentially end the Electoral College.

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KEYSSAR: And in an extraordinary development, in September of 1969, a constitutional amendment calling for ending the Electoral College and replacing it with the national popular vote is passed by the House of Representatives.

ARABLOUEI: But then it hit a wall.

KEYSSAR: The chair of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate is James Eastland, an ardent and determined and committed segregationist.

ABDELFATAH: He was a Southern Democrat.

KEYSSAR: And I think one has to understand, too, that it was an article of faith that the Electoral College gave them a structure and influence in the presidential elections.

ARABLOUEI: The proposal is defeated by filibuster. The Electoral College survives.

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CORNISH: Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah of NPR's history podcast Throughline. They've got a recent series of episodes called Misrepresentative Democracy. Check those out at the link in our episode notes.

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CORNISH: Of course, these days, it's mostly Democrats who have a problem with the Electoral College and Republicans who don't.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: It did not used to be. And you used to be able to get a majority in both major parties who would say, get rid of the Electoral College.

CORNISH: NPR political editor Ron Elving points out that in the last five presidential elections, there have been two races won by a Republican who lost the popular vote. And we talked about what that means for how candidates campaign and whether things could change.

So this whole idea of winning the popular vote but losing the election - it's not that unusual, right? I mean, Hillary Clinton wasn't the first candidate that that happened to.

ELVING: No. It happened in 2000 to Al Gore. He was a Democrat who won about a half a million more votes nationally in the popular vote than George W. Bush. It also happened three times in the 1800s, but most people are more focused on 2000.

CORNISH: What does it mean for how they campaign? We're so used to the red and blue state battle, right? But what does that mean when they're actually on debate stages, on the campaign trail?

ELVING: It changes the issues that are likely to be talked about. So, for example, energy and fracking were a big part of the debates. Fracking is a means by which to get more oil and gas out of the ground than we could get before, but it has environmental implications. So it is an important issue but not to most people in the country. Now...

CORNISH: No, I remember, like, there was a lot of Google searches the day after the debate 'cause people were sort of like, why are we talking about this right now?

ELVING: Exactly. And actually, the reason is a handful of counties in Western Pennsylvania where fracking is a part of the employment base. If California were in play, Audie, I suspect we'd be hearing a lot more from the candidates about wildfires and air quality.

CORNISH: After hearing about that push for a change to the Constitution in 1968, is there any other serious effort to get rid of the Electoral College now? I mean, I hear a lot of activists talking about it.

ELVING: The most organized effort is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Each state that's agreed to the compact has pledged its Electoral College vote to the candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide rather than the vote in that one state. Now, the states in the compact at this point have a little less than 200 Electoral College votes, but they need 270 to actually control the election. And they still don't have any states we would call red or Republican-voting states.

There's also the prospect of more states deciding to divide their electoral vote by congressional districts rather than making it winner-take-all. Maine and Nebraska already do this. And we have seen them divide some of their electoral vote in recent elections, and it could happen again this year. In fact, that's why President Trump went campaigning in Omaha in the last week of the campaign.

CORNISH: Is there any chance there'd be movement on these ideas before the next election?

ELVING: Short answer - it depends on what happens in this presidential election. If there is another big disconnect between the popular vote and the Electoral College and if it favors the Republicans again for the third time in 20 years, the issue will be more partisan than ever and probably more difficult to resolve.

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CORNISH: NPR political editor Ron Elving.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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