Ahead of Election Day 2020, we asked a mom and veteran political strategist to explain what the Electoral College is, how it works, and why it was created—all in terms simple enough for a child to understand.

By Emily Tisch Sussman
August 17, 2020
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The 2020 election is fast approaching, and things look very different from past years because of the coronavirus pandemic. But besides virtual national conventions and expanded voting by mail, many of the general election’s components remain intact, like the Electoral College.

If you've heard this term before but have no clue what it means, you're not alone. In my 15+ years as a political strategist, I’ve covered every element of presidential campaigns—many of which I discuss on my podcast Your Presidential Playlist with women like Hillary Clinton, Stacey Abrams, and Nancy Pelosi. But the Electoral College is a piece of the puzzle that still confuses many people—no matter what age they are!

To kick off the back-to-school season, I’ve created an elementary school lesson on what the Electoral College is, how it works, and why it was created, informed by conversations with the perfect source: my friend's 7-year-old son.

Illustration by Francesca Spatola; Getty Images (1)

The Electoral College isn't an actual school.

The Electoral College sounds like a grown-up school your older sibling or babysitter goes to when they finish high school, but that isn't the case. The Electoral College isn't a place; it’s the way our country elects the president of the United States. You may already know a bit about the election: grown-ups 18 and older can sign up to vote, then go to a polling station to cast their vote for president. Then, as my friend’s son explains, “Whoever gets the most votes becomes president. Whoever gets the least votes does not.” That’s mostly correct, but the missing detail is that those votes come from the Electoral College—not directly from the people voting. 

This is how the Electoral College works.

You may be thinking, “Wait a minute… I thought if my parents voted, their votes go directly to the people they want for president and vice president. Does that mean their votes don’t count?” Their votes do count, but differently than you expect. When your parents or any grown-up makes their general election vote, they’re actually voting for a group of people called “electors” who make up the Electoral College. These electors then vote for president and vice president.

Just because the Electoral College ultimately votes for the president, doesn’t mean electors can vote however they want. You tell them how to vote. As my friend’s son explains it, “each state votes for who they want to be president.” When a grown-up casts their vote, that vote tells their electors how the state should vote for president and vice president.

The Electoral College is big—10 NFL football teams big.

There are 538 electors in the Electoral College from all 50 states and Washington D.C.—that’s about as many players on 10 NFL football teams! Each state gets a certain number of electors depending on how many people live there. Bigger states get bigger teams of electors, and smaller states get smaller teams of electors. And just how football teams don’t take everyone who tries out, not just anyone can be an elector. Each state has its own rules on how electors are chosen. Usually, the winning political party of the primary election picks the electors.

Candidates want the magic number of electoral votes.

There are two types of votes: the popular vote, which is every grown-up’s individual vote, and the electoral vote, which is the elector’s vote. Presidential candidates want to get as many electoral votes as they can, but they don’t need all 538. The magic number to win is 270—a little over half. In the event that neither presidential candidate receives the majority of electoral votes, the election goes to the House of Representatives to break the tie.

States play by an all-or-nothing rule.

Once everyone in a certain state votes, the Electoral College counts how many people voted for one presidential candidate and how many voted for the other. The candidate with the most popular votes wins all the electoral votes of that state. Every state except for Maine and Nebraska (who split their electoral votes) uses this “all or nothing” rule. That’s why it’s so important that every grown-up in your hometown votes. If a candidate wins the popular vote in a state by one teeny tiny vote, they get all the electoral votes for that state.

Think of it this way: you and a classmate each have an empty bowl, and the rest of your class has M&Ms that they can only give to you or your classmate. One by one, your classmates place their M&M in either your bowl or the other bowl. At the end, whichever person has the most M&Ms in their bowl wins all the M&Ms.

Lots of people wonder if the Electoral College is fair.

Today, many Americans debate whether the Electoral College is a good or bad way to elect the president. Some people think the Electoral College is fair because it helps smaller states with fewer people still have a voice in the election. Other people think the Electoral College is unfair because it’s possible that the presidential candidate who wins the electoral vote may lose the popular vote, which technically means the majority of Americans didn’t actually want the person who was elected president. (That happened most recently during the 2016 and 2000 elections.)

Another reason people think the Electoral College is unfair is because it gives a few unpredictable “swing” states a lot of influence over the election. These states often “swing” their votes between parties with each election. 

But it wasn't created to please everyone.

It’s not surprising that Americans have different ideas about why the Electoral College is good or bad—because it wasn’t created to please everybody. Let me explain: say you want to go out for pizza for dinner, but your parents want to cook at home. So, you offer to help them make pizza at home. That’s called a compromise, and that’s what the Founding Fathers did to create the Electoral College. 

You’ll probably hear a lot more about the Electoral College when the votes are counted for the presidential election this November. You can learn more about which states’ electoral votes will probably decide the next president on my podcast, Your Presidential Playlist. Let the race to 270 begin!

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