How to Explain the Electoral College to Kids

With election headlines in the news and discussion about voting happening at home, your kids are sure to have questions about the voting system and election process. One thing that makes the US's election unique and might cause confusion with kids and adults alike is the Electoral College. Four presidencies have been secured by winning the Electoral College, but not the popular vote. While it may be slightly confusing — and highly contested, as there have been about 700 attempts to reform or abolish it — it's an essential part of understanding how our democracy functions, and why election outcomes happen the way they do. Here's how you can answer questions about the electoral college from kids who want to know.

What Is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is a group of people chosen to represent their state in the election. These people, known as electors, have the important job of representing the way that their state voted. For example, your class might have a class leader who speaks for the class when important decisions need to be made. Instead of hearing 20-30 voices, the teacher just has to listen to one person, who, ideally, represents the best interests of the class.

How Are Electors Chosen?

Each state gets a certain number of electors, which equal the number of representatives it has in the House and Senate. For example, big states like California, Texas, and Florida have the most electors, because they have the most people.

The way that electors are chosen varies by state. Most states choose their electors at political party conventions. Political parties are groups of people with similar interests, and they host conventions, which are basically big meetings, to make important decisions. For example, your school might a group of students that wants recess after lunch and a group that wants recess before lunch. Because each group has a different opinion, they have a big meeting where they choose different people to represent them.

How Does the Electoral College Work?

During the election, the state counts all of the votes, then decides who received the most votes. The candidate that receives the most votes wins all of the electors. Even if an election is very close, one candidate still gets all of the electoral votes (except in Maine and Nebraska). Once all of the electoral votes are counted, the candidate with the most electoral votes wins.

Why Does the Electoral College Exist?

It might seem odd that we have electors, or class leaders, instead of just having everyone in the class vote. Remember, the Constitution was written a long time ago, when states were concerned with having their individual rights and interests protected. State leaders wanted to make sure their states were represented by the majority, which is why the leading candidate gets all of the electoral votes.

So, if 14 of the kids in your class vote to have recess before lunch, but 15 kids vote to have it after lunch, all of your class's votes go toward recess after lunch. Those 15 kids represent the majority interest for your classroom. Just as all 50 states vote, if every classroom in your school votes, having electors helps the principal know what your classroom wants to do.

The Electoral College is by no means a flawless system. When the Constitution was drafted, Southern states had large populations composed of a large percentage of enslaved people, who didn't have the right to vote. That's when Northern and Southern states agreed to use the Three-Fifths Compromise, in which only three-fifths of the state's total of enslaved people counted toward the state's population in matters of taxation and representation in the Electoral College. This meant that enslaved individuals at that time counted as less than one person, and that states with large populations of enslaved people got more power in the Electoral College.

With the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery was abolished, but the Electoral College remains in pretty much the same form as it did when established. This means that presidential candidates look to gain the majority of Electoral College votes in order to secure a win. States with more people and therefore more electoral votes, like California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio could determine an election, but it's really "battleground" or "swing states" (those states that flip between the two main political parties in the country — including some of the states with the most electoral votes, but also states like North Carolina, Iowa, and Georgia) that play the biggest role during campaigning and in the election results.

Some people would like to abolish the Electoral College. A poll in September 2020 found that 61 percent, the majority, of people polled would like to eliminate it in favor of counting each vote or follow what is called the popular vote. But right now, the Electoral College is the system we use in the US. When you're old enough to vote, things might be different or they might be same, and you'll have to learn more about the way government works and how you can make an impact as you get closer to voting age, which is 18 years old. For now, what's important to remember is that every person who is voting in this election is doing so to make their voice heard.