POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy

Electoral College

An electoral college is a process, rather than a college or building. It consists of a group of people who are responsible for electing a candidate into a particular office. The number of electors is usually correlated with population density in a region. In the USA, for example, California has more electoral college members than Wyoming due to the difference in population size.

It has been criticized for marginalizing voters living in states with lower populations and giving more attention to those states that are considered Swing States. Similarly, it has come under criticism for ignoring the political views of those living in "safe" districts. California, for example, is traditionally a safe Democrat seat. Therefore Republican supporters living in the area have their voting preferences ignored.

Around the World:

  • USA: The US president is indirectly elected into office by the electoral college. Electors represent the 50 States and the Federal district. The number of college members for each state is not equal, with more populous states receiving more members. Only Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system within the US electoral college - electors are distributed according to the popular vote in the state.
  • Germany: The non-executive Head of State is elected in Germany by a combination of members of the Federal parliament as well as state parliaments. 
  • India has a similar system to Germany. Both houses of their parliament have their votes weighted to elect their head of state.
  • French and Irish Senate Elections are chosen by electoral colleges. Burundi, Estonia, and Kazakhstan to name a few also incorporate the electoral college into their electoral systems. 

Early History:

Electoral colleges have their roots in early Germanic law from the early middle ages, some as old as the 5th Century CE. Influenced by Roman customs and laws, the Visigoths had the most contact with the Romans and adopted aspects of their electoral system into the way their tribal leaders were chosen. The Electoral College system derives from a system where a king could only rule if he had the support of the nobles. This system continued into the Holy Roman Empire, where the "Elected Emperor of the Romans" would be elected by a college of "prince-electors". The college changed over time, with the final council consisting of a Council of Electors, a Council of Princes and Council of Cities, each with different voting rights and weighting.

See also: Presidential Election, Direct Elections, US Electoral College

< Go back