U.S. presidents have been selected through a system known as the electoral college since 1787. It takes the power to directly choose the next commander-in-chief out of the hands of the American population and transfers it into the hands of representatives who then cast their votes, almost always, for the candidate those people voted for anyway.

That means that, for literally every election you, your parents and grandparents have ever been alive for, that’s how things have been done every four years. It is also often criticized. So, if you’re just learning about this now and are outraged at your lack of direct democratic influence, keep on reading. 

What’s The Back Story?

The Constitutional Convention in 1787 had a few ideas for electing presidents but couldn’t come to an agreement right away. They included letting Congress choose the president; letting governors or state legislators choose; and leaving the whole thing up to a direct vote from American citizens. Ultimately, delegates chose the electoral college as a way to reconcile state and federal interests while also maintaining a level of importance for popular participation.

How Does It Work?

There are 538 electors in the college, a number that reflects the number of House members (435), senators (100) and three additional electors for Washington, D.C. While rules can vary depending on the state, the vast majority of states have a winner-takes-all system in which the total of electors from the state goes to whoever wins a plurality or majority of the vote there.

If a candidate gets 270 Electoral College votes or more, that’s it, folks — there’s a president. If nobody achieves that threshold, the election is up to the U.S. House of Representatives, which decides between the highest three candidates in the race. Theoretically it is possible for that to happen with both major parties receiving 269 electoral votes each.

Why Is It Used Instead Of Direct Democracy?

The founding fathers didn’t think the common man could be trusted to make good decisions at the ballot box and wanted to hedge a bit. But, there are some other considerations, as explained by Slate.

One is making the president “everyone’s president.” With the electoral college, candidates can’t just focus on major population hubs and call it a day and they can’t just spend all their time in the states with the high populations. They also can’t focus on one region of the country because there aren’t enough electoral college votes in, say, the Northeast to win an election. They must have broad appeal.

Another consideration is that the electoral college provides a particular level of certainty that there will be an actual outcome. While it’s possible for there to be a tie, it’s less likely than a close popular vote result, which could then be contested repeatedly. The electoral college helps avoid a run-off election since a candidate can get only a plurality of popular votes and still win the electoral college vote.

Finally, the system gives a little power back to big states (since they’re winner-take-all, they have a much bigger payoff) and creates swing states. A swing state is beneficial because that status leads voters in those places to be much more focused on the election and, therefore, potentially more thoughtful about their choices.