The Electoral College: How it works and the debate over its future

Published: Nov. 2, 2020 at 8:32 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 2, 2020 at 10:46 AM CST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - The Electoral College is written in the Constitution in Article II, Section I.

Hans Von Spakovsky from The Heritage Foundation believes the Founding Fathers got it right.

“They were afraid that if you had a president elected based simply on the national popular vote, the candidates would simply go to the big cities, the big urban areas, and they would ignore the smaller states, the more rural areas of the country," Von Spakovsky explained.

In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner of the popular vote in that state gets all the electoral votes for the state.

Maine and Nebraska allocate two electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in that state and one electoral vote to the popular vote winner in each congressional district. There are two congressional districts in Maine and three in Nebraska.

A candidate needs at least 270 out of 538 electoral votes to win the election.

Five times in U.S. history, the winner of the presidential election did not win the popular vote – including George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. That’s twice in the past five elections, and there is a growing call to abolish the Electoral College.

“The Electoral College basically empowers those small and mid-size states over the larger states where the economic activity is taking place," said Darrell West, from The Brookings Institution. "That is not a sustainable system in the long run.”

West supports a direct popular election – meaning people would vote directly for a candidate, not an elector. He said a constitutional amendment would most likely be required to abolish the Electoral College.

An alternative would be to keep the Electoral College, but have the states award their electors to the winner of the nationwide popular vote, not the state’s popular vote.

So far, 15 states and Washington, D.C. have signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact supporting this plan– totaling 196 electoral votes. The compact needs 74 more electoral votes to take effect.

Senior Reporter/Executive Producer Ted Fioraliso, Multimedia Journalist Natalie Grim, and Photojournalist/Editor Tyler Smith contributed to this report.

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