Electoral College For Kids

With another election looming and with the guarantee that people, probably from both sides of the aisle, will be screaming with a desire to get rid of the electoral college system, now is a great time to explain it to your kids.

This is a meeting of the Ohio Electoral College in 2012. Photo by Ibagli, released to the public domain.

America Is Not A Democracy

The first thing you must understand is that America is not a Democracy.  Democracy is another name for majority rule, or as it turns out, mob rule.  Watch this video if you really want to understand the American form of government.

America is a Representative Republic.  In a republic, the people vote for representatives who, supposedly being more qualified and knowledgeable than the general public, then make decisions for the rest of us.

How the Electoral College Works

The electoral college works exactly this way.  The people in a particular state, let’s use Idaho since that’s my home state, vote for who they want to be president.  The Idaho state legislature meanwhile has chosen four individuals (since Idaho gets four electoral votes) who are appointed as electors.  The electors are bound by the laws of the state in which they vote.  In Idaho, all four electors will vote for the candidate who the people of Idaho have chosen by the majority.  So for this election, all four votes will either go for the Republican candidate or the Democrat candidate.  It does not matter what the personal feelings of the electors are, they vote the way their state votes.  In most states, the winner takes all.  In Maine though, which gets four electoral votes, the votes are given by apportionment.  So three votes might go to one candidate and one to the other, or another combination.  Nebraska is the only other state which uses apportionment.

This map shows how many electoral college votes each state gets as of the 2010 census. Map by Gage, United States Census, CC license, Wikimedia.

How Does The Electoral College Protect the People?

So why do we do it this way?  There are two main reasons.

  1. This makes the president elected at the pleasure of the states and to the states, therefore, he must answer.
  2. It is more fair, giving greater weight to smaller states than they would otherwise have and reducing some of the clouts of bigger states.

The States Have Authority Over the Federal Government

The entity that grants power has authority over the entity given the power.  So in other words, since the president is elected by the state-appointed electors he is under the authority of the states.  At the beginning of our republic, the states were understood to be sovereign and independent countries, federated for mutual defense and trade, but not one nation in the way we understand it today.  The federal government was invented and created by the states, not the other way around.  The federal government should not have authority over the states except in the very specific ways outlined in the Constitution.  The way our president is elected is one more reminder of the relative positions of the state and federal government; a very, very important distinction.

The Small States Have Power Weighted Slightly In Their Favor

In the general scheme of things, Idaho is not very important to the election of a president.  We only get four votes while California gets fifty-five, Florida gets twenty-nine, Texas gets thirty-eight . . . you get my drift.  But it could be worse, we could elect a president by a popular vote.  See, every state gets two votes just because it is a state, equal representation in the federal government.  Then the remaining electoral votes are based on population.  Without the electoral college system, Idaho’s clout would be even less; the clout of all rural and small town areas would be much less.  Cities would dictate to the rest of the country the whole of political life.  But the electoral college gives us rural/small town people a larger voice than we would otherwise have.

Why Do People Want to End the Electoral College?

So why do politicians and pundits call to an end of the electoral college every election cycle?  Either they do not understand it or, much more likely, they understand it all too well.  The federal government does not like being under the authority of the states.  For the whole of our two hundred plus years of history, they have worked to make the states less and less relevant.  They’ve done a very good job.

Also if an election is decided by the simple will of the majority, then the president can claim a “mandate”.  Mandates are very dangerous things.  They allow the president to claim he can do anything he wants as long as it is what the majority also want.  But the Constitution was set up to protect the minority and assure all people of the rule of law and of a limited government and maximum freedom.  A purely popular vote would undermine our freedom.

Finally, the more populated parts of the country, the cities, are heavily liberal while the small towns and rural areas are heavily conservative.  The country people would utterly have their will unheard in a government based purely on a simple majority, something some people think is a good thing.

This map shows the election results of the 2012 presidential race by county. You can quickly see that the more populated areas went for the Democrat (blue) and the small towns and rural areas went for the Republican (red). Without the electoral college, the vast majority of the country would never have a voice. But this map also shows why the apportionment systems in Maine and Nebraska are the way to go.  Look at Washington State.  It goes all blue every year, taking all the electoral college votes for the Democrat, but the entire eastern half of the state voted for the Republican.  The few Democrats in Idaho never get their voice heard either.  This situation fosters apathy in voters who think their voice is never heard anyway. Image by M. E. J. Newman, CC license, Wikimedia.

Additional Layers

  • Take a look at this year’s electoral map to see how the election is shaping up.  (The info on the maps at this point is based on polls and could change drastically when election day does appear.)
  • Visit this website that shares 29 Key Facts About the Electoral College.
  • Why do the Republicans have an elephant mascot and Democrats have a donkey?  Find out here.
  • Learn about types of governments and types of economies with these fun matching and trivia games.
  • Just in case you thought dirty elections, name-calling, and biased advertising, reporting, and “journalism” were new things check out the election of 1800, which Jefferson won, barely.
  • And when you hear all that vitriol and bias and politicians being politicians and when you see annoying bumper stickers, smile and say, “God bless America,” because you know it’s all down to one marvelous, miraculous right of the people, the right of conscience as stated in the First Amendment.

More From Layers of Learning

You can delve even deeper into American Government in Layers of Learning Unit 4-1.  It’s full of hands-on projects and learning fun for your whole family.

Layers of Learning Unit 4-1
Unit 4-1: American Government, U.S.A., Heat & Temperature, Patriotic Music


  1. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you design
    this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?

    Plz reply as I’m looking to design my own blog and would like to know where u got this from. thanks a lot

    1. The template is called Sliding Door, but the rest of the design is our own. It’s constantly a work in progress; we are by no means experts! Thanks for the compliments and best of luck with your blog. (:

  2. What an easy to understand explanation of why we don’t want to end the Electoral College. I knew some of it and this helped me understand it better.

    I bought my first unit to start planning for the next school year. I thought I would skim it…however I find myself reading everything because you’ve made it so interesting!

    Should I just have my highschooler download the PDF units to her laptop? How do you do this at your house?

    1. Hi Judy, we use this with many ages of kids at once as we both have big families, so we (Moms) keep it for ourselves and teach from it. We give our high schoolers reading assignments, video links, and project and writing assignments in their planners that come from the units. We do lots of group lessons, projects, and read alouds all together as a family too. If your daughter is learning really independently though, she might like having lots of control and choice by getting to use the pdf directly. We’re glad you’re enjoying it already! Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any help or advice along the way. We have a lot of articles on our site, including the curriculum guide, that you might find useful. We also have a really stellar group of ladies in our facebook group that are full of great ideas. I’m there too, and always happy to answer questions that come up.



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