The Electoral College is a constitutionally mandated process that determines who serves as president and vice president of the United States every four years. It was a compromise between having Congress elect the president and a direct election by popular vote.
Americans actually vote for the electors who then vote for president when they convene after the election. Electors are chosen in processes defined by state law, creating a patchwork of selection processes.
Each state gets a number of electors equal to its number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives plus one for each of its two U.S. Senators. While most states award their electoral votes based on the winner of the popular vote in the state, there are two states which split their electors according to the vote in each congressional district.
The term “electoral college” actually does not appear in the U.S. Constitution and was derived from the concept of electors used by the Roman empire. However, in the early 1800’s the term “electoral college” came into general usage as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for President and Vice President. It was later written into Federal law in 1845.
There have been many attempts to reform the Electoral College over the years, but those efforts have typically fallen short. One notable exception was the 12th Amendment’s separation of electoral votes for president and vice president.
A more promising reform effort in recent years is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact which takes a state-by-state approach to electoral reform that is distinct from the long history of attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution. States that sign on to the compact promise to award their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the popular vote nationally, regardless of which way their state votes.