electoral college

[ ih-lek-ter-uhl kol-ij, ee-lek-tawr-uhl ]
/ ɪˈlɛk tər əl ˈkɒl ɪdʒ, iˌlɛkˈtɔr əl /
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noun (often initial capital letters)
a body of electors chosen by the voters in each state to elect the president and vice president of the U.S.
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Origin of electoral college

An Americanism dating back to 1790–1800
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is an indirect voting system in the United States in which electors from each state, appointed based on the popular vote, go on to vote for the president.

How is Electoral College pronounced?

[ ih-lek-ter-uhl kol-ij ]

How does the Electoral College work?

Though Electoral College sounds like an institution where one could earn a degree, it is actually the name of a process in which a body (college) of representatives (electors) vote for the president of the United States. This process was established in Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, which references “electors” appointing the “executive Power” on the basis of congressional and senatorial representation. The specific phrase Electoral College, however, wasn’t written into law until 1845.

The Founding Fathers of the U.S. designed the voting process of the Electoral College to prevent the public from electing an unqualified candidate and to ensure more populous states didn’t always determine the president over smaller states, many of which had a large slave population who historically were not allowed to vote.

So, instead of an outright popular vote, in which the winner is selected by whoever earns the most individual votes across the country, a presidential vote in the U.S. is actually a vote for electors within one’s state of residence, who then pledge to vote for the candidate with the most votes in the Electoral College. For example, if the Democratic presidential candidate wins the state of North Carolina, then the electors in North Carolina will be able to vote for them in the Electoral College.

Each state has a different proportional number of electors, based on population, with a total of 538 in the country. For a candidate to win the election, they must be voted in by at least 270 electors. Forty-eight states use a winner-take-all method wherein whatever candidate wins the popular vote of a state takes all of the electors, but Maine and Nebraska use a Congressional District Method, which gives one electoral vote to each state’s congressional districts.

Electors are chosen within each state by political parties, often voted on by the party’s committee and usually based on their prior service to the party. Though nominated electors can be politically active, they are forbidden from being a representative, senator, or holding any office of trust or profit. While electors pledge to vote for a candidate, they are not bound to do so, and are called faithless electors if they vote for a different candidate or don’t vote.

Update: On July 6, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states can require members of the Electoral College to vote for the candidates they pledged to support.

The electors do not meet and vote on Election Day itself; rather, they meet on the first Monday following the second Wednesday after the day of their appointment.

There is still fervent debate about whether the United States should switch a purely popular vote system. These arguments heated up in 2016 when candidate Donald Trump lost the popular vote to rival Hillary Clinton by nearly three million votes yet won the presidency due to the Electoral College system. Trump is the fifth President to lose the popular vote, following John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush in the 2000 election.

There has long been a movement to end the Electoral College, but this presents unique challenges since the system is enshrined in the Constitution, and such a change would require a constitutional amendment. However, the National Popular Vote bill seeks to bypass this; the bill would make it so that if a candidate wins the national popular vote, any state that has ratified the bill will give their electoral votes to the popular winner. So far, this bill has passed in 11 states.

Examples of Electoral College

“The electoral vote on Monday—by the people who represent the Electoral College votes awarded on Election Day—has been the occasion for much speculation, hope and debate.”
—Lily Rothman, “The Electoral College Votes Today. But Politicians Have Been Trying to Reform It for Decades,” Time, December 19, 2016

“But [Al Gore] lost the election after losing Florida in the electoral college.”
—Paul Smalera, “Voting for a third party candidate in this election is the worst thing you can do for American democracy,” Quartz, September 29, 2016


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use electoral college in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for electoral college

electoral college

(often capitals) US a body of electors chosen by the voters who formally elect the president and vice president
any body of electors with similar functions
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for electoral college

Electoral College
[ (i-lek-tuhr-uhl) ]

The presidential electors who meet after the citizens vote for president and cast ballots for the president and vice president. Each state is granted the same number of electors as it has senators (see United States Senate) and representatives combined. These electors, rather than the public, actually elect the president and the vice president. The Founding Fathers assumed that electors would exercise discretion and not necessarily be bound by the popular vote, but the rise of political parties undermined this assumption. Electors are now pledged in advance to vote for the candidate of their party, and nearly always do so. Thus, the vote of the Electoral College is largely a formality.

notes for Electoral College

There have been several attempts to abolish the Electoral College. In the 2000 presidential election, the candidate with the plurality of popular votes lost the electoral vote, a situation that also occurred in the 1876 and 1888 elections.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.