How to explain the Electoral College to kids

It’s not actually a college — and other facts that kids (and adults, too!) should know ahead of Election Day.
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Election Day is less than a week away and this year looks different than ever before. Though kids cannot officially cast their ballot, they might be wondering what happens when the votes get tallied. Where do the votes go and why do they matter?

“The more I teach [about elections and history], the more I have noticed students get involved in these issues and a younger generation feeling more interested and engaged in politics,” Todd Shyk, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher at Linglestown Middle School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents.

Ahead of Election Day 2020, here’s how to explain the Electoral College to kids from two history teachers with experience. (Let’s be honest, adults might find this useful, too.)

It is not a college.

The Electoral College is a body of people, known as electors, that determine who will win the role of president and live in the White House.

“It is a group of people that represent an area of voting,” Steve Carson, a retired public school history teacher in central Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents. “Each state has electors committed to the College, and it’s based on the population in that state, which is determined every ten years by the census.”

The Electoral College was formed out of compromise.

The Electoral College is — and was formed because of — a compromise, just like many parts of the creation of the country we know today.

“The men who met during the summer of 1787 were torn between deciding to allow Congress to elect the President or the people ‘directly’, so what they came up with was a little of both,” Shyk said. “The Electoral College was, to them, the best of both. It would use electors to represent the Congressional element and would allow ‘the people’s’ vote to determine if a candidate wins the states.”

At that time, there was also the belief that not all citizens were informed enough to cast a vote.

“Congress was worried about candidates going out just to populated areas to get the votes,” Carson added. “They didn’t want people coming out who didn’t understand issues.”

The number of electors each state gets is different.

Because every state is a different size, each state has a different number of electors in the Electoral College. California has the most electoral votes with 55, followed by Texas with 38, and Florida with 29.

“There are 538 electors in the Electoral College,” Carson explained. “It’s set up on representation from the amount of Congress members, Senators and Representatives.”

Electors cast their vote based on how residents in their state vote.

When voters go to the polls to cast their vote, that is known as the popular vote. That popular vote is then used by the electors to cast their vote, which is usually reflective of the popular vote.

“You vote for representation,” Carson said. “It all depends on how the state stacks up as a whole and for a candidate to win and be elected President, they have to have 270 votes.”

It’s possible to win the popular vote, but not the election.

This is where it gets tricky, but it happened in 2016. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with 2.9 million more votes than her opponent, Donald Trump, who won the election and became our 45th President.

“[This scenario] deals with how a candidate, like Hillary Clinton, can win a state overwhelmingly, like she did in California, but receive no ‘extra’ in the Electoral College,” Shyk explained, referencing the notion that candidates who win top states typically have a stronghold in states with a smaller number of electors. “The ‘winning’ candidate narrowly wins key states, like Donald Trump did in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and the candidate who ‘loses’ in the Electoral College defeats the ‘winner’ by large margins in other states.”

In addition to 2016, this situation has occurred four other times in history: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.

There is a push to get rid of the Electoral College.

Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees with how the 233-year-old Electoral College process works.

“There is a larger push than ever to seriously consider getting rid of the Electoral College, as more voters feel that the President does not represent a majority of the people’s choice,” Shyk explained.

Carson added the dated process is not reflective of a modern era, “We don’t have citizens anymore who are not informed.”