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Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump (right)

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images (Biden); Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images (Trump); Shutterstock.com (Banner, Stars)

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Who Picks The President?

The Electoral College makes the presidential election different from all other elections

Every four years, Americans cast their vote for the next president. But the election isn’t over once the popular vote is tallied. On December 14, the Electoral College will vote to officially elect the president.

The Electoral College has 538 electors. Each state has two slates, or groups, of electors chosen by both the Republican and Democratic parties. How many electors a state gets corresponds to the number of members of Congress it has. There’s also three from Washington, D.C.

Every four years, Americans vote for the next president. But the election isn’t over when the ballots are counted. On December 14, a group called the Electoral College meets. They vote to officially elect the president.

The Electoral College has 538 members called electors. Each state has two groups of electors. The Republican and Democratic parties each choose some. Different states get different numbers of electors depending on how many members of Congress they have. There are also three electors from Washington, D.C.

That means states with a larger population have more electoral votes. Electors vote based on the winner of the state’s popular vote. This system is different from every other type of election in the U.S.: Governors, members of Congress, and state representatives are decided by simply counting the popular vote.

So where does the Electoral College come from? It’s outlined in the Constitution. Scholars originally theorized that the Framers, or writers, of the Constitution worried that individual citizens—who were mostly uneducated and unfamiliar with politics—wouldn’t be able to make informed decisions. So the Framers created the Electoral College to ensure an informed vote.

States with a larger population have more electoral votes. Electors vote based on which candidate received the most votes in their state. This system is different from every other type of election in the U.S.. Governors, members of Congress, and state representatives are all elected simply by counting the popular vote.

So where does the Electoral College come from? It’s outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Scholars have had different theories about why the Framers, or writers, of the Constitution did this. One idea was that the Framers knew individual citizens were mostly uneducated and unfamiliar with politics. They may have worried that these voters wouldn’t be able to make informed decisions. The Framers created the Electoral College to ensure an informed vote.

But most constitutional experts, including Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, now believe that the Electoral College was created to appease states with large enslaved populations, like Virginia. “Those states did not want direct election because their enslaved populations could not vote,” says Amar. Under the Electoral College system, the Constitution let states count  of their enslaved population toward the number of electors they get—giving them more political power.

Some experts worry that the Electoral College is undemocratic because a person who does not win the popular vote can still be elected president (see “Electoral Outliers,” above). But it does reflect the popular vote on a state-by-state basis, says Jonathan Auerbach, a statistician at Columbia University. “When the popular vote is so close that the Electoral College makes a difference, you couldn’t say either winner has a commanding lead,” he adds.

But most experts now believe that the Electoral College was created for a different reason. The Framers wanted to satisfy states with large enslaved populations, like Virginia. “Those states did not want direct election because their enslaved populations could not vote,” says Akhil Reed Amar. He’s a law professor at Yale University. Under the Electoral College system, the Constitution let states count three-fifths of their enslaved population toward the number of electors they got. That gave them more political power.

Some experts worry that the Electoral College is unfair. That’s because a candidate who does not win the popular vote can still be elected president (see “Electoral Outliers,” above). But the electors from each state do base their votes on the popular vote, says Jonathan Auerbach. He’s a statistician at Columbia University. “When the popular vote is so close that the Electoral College makes a difference, you couldn’t say either winner has a commanding lead,” he adds.

Jim McMahon/Mapman ®

Use the map above to answer questions about the Electoral College. Round answers to the nearest whole number when necessary. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use the map above to answer questions about the Electoral College. Round answers to the nearest whole number when necessary. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

A. Which color are states with 11 to 15 electors?

A. Which color are states with 11 to 15 electors?

B. How many states is that?

B. How many states is that?

What’s the mode, or most common number, of electors?

What’s the mode, or most common number, of electors?

A. How many electors do the 6 states with the most electors have in total?

A. How many electors do the 6 states with the most electors have in total?

B. How many electors do the 6 states with the fewest electors have in total?

B. How many electors do the 6 states with the fewest electors have in total?

What’s the minimum number of states a candidate could win and win the election?

What’s the minimum number of states a candidate could win and win the election?

How many electors does your state have? What percent of total electors is that?

How many electors does your state have? What percent of total electors is that?

Who do you think will win each state? Use the “Race to 270” interactive map at math.scholastic.com/raceto270 to make your picks!

Who do you think will win each state? Use the “Race to 270” interactive map at math.scholastic.com/raceto270 to make your picks!

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