How Does The Electoral College Work? What Is The Electoral College? Why Is Electoral College Important?

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is a process, not a place. The founding fathers established it in the Constitution as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens.

The Electoral College process consists of the selection of the electors, the meeting of the electors where they vote for President and Vice President, and the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.

The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. A majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President. Your state’s entitled allotment of electors equals the number of members in its Congressional delegation: one for each member in the House of Representatives plus two for your Senators. Read more about the allocation of electoral votes.

House pages bring the electoral votes from the 2008 election into the House Chamber during the joint session for counting the votes. (U.S. House of Representatives, Office of Photography)
House pages bring the electoral votes from the 2008 election into the House Chamber during the joint session for counting the votes. (U.S. House of Representatives, Office of Photography)

Under the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution, the District of Columbia is allocated 3 electors and treated like a state for purposes of the Electoral College. For this reason, in the following discussion, the word “state” also refers to the District of Columbia.

Each candidate running for President in your state has his or her own group of electors. The electors are generally chosen by the candidate’s political party, but state laws vary on how the electors are selected and what their responsibilities are. Read more about the qualifications of the Electors and restrictions on who the Electors may vote for.

The presidential election is held every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. You help choose your state’s electors when you vote for President because when you vote for your candidate you are actually voting for your candidate’s electors.

Most states have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all electors to the winning presidential candidate. However, Maine and Nebraska each have a variation of “proportional representation.” Read more about the allocation of Electors among the states and try to predict the outcome of the Electoral College vote.

After the presidential election, your governor prepares a “Certificate of Ascertainment” listing all of the candidates who ran for President in your state along with the names of their respective electors. The Certificate of Ascertainment also declares the winning presidential candidate in your state and shows which electors will represent your state at the meeting of the electors in December of the election year. Your states Certificates of Ascertainments are sent to the Congress and the National Archives as part of the official records of the presidential election. See the key dates for the 2016 election and information about the roles and responsibilities of state officials, the Office of the Federal Register and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and the Congress in the Electoral College process.

The meeting of the electors takes place on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December after the presidential election. The electors meet in their respective states, where they cast their votes for President and Vice President on separate ballots. Your state’s electors’ votes are recorded on a “Certificate of Vote,” which is prepared at the meeting by the electors. Your state’s Certificates of Votes are sent to the Congress and the National Archives as part of the official records of the presidential election. See the key dates for the 2016 election and information about the roles and responsibilities of state officials and the Congress in the Electoral College process.

The Electoral College is a group of people that elects the president and the vice president of the United States. (The word “college” in this case simply refers to an organized body of people engaged in a common task.)

As voters head to the polls on Tuesday, they will not vote for the presidential candidates directly, in a popular vote. Instead, they will vote to elect specific people, known as “electors” to the college. Each state gets a certain number of electoral votes based on its population.

The electors are appointed by the political parties in each state, so if you vote for Donald J. Trump on Tuesday, and Mr. Trump ends up winning the popular vote in your state, then electors that the Republican Party has chosen will cast votes for him in their state capitals in December.

The electors are asked to cast their votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. This year, that’s Dec. 19.

But most people don’t pay attention to that because, technically, it’s the election of the electors that matters. And on Election Day, we’re electing the electors who elect the president.

The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors who cast votes to decide the President and Vice-President of the United States. When voters go to the polls on Tuesday, they will be choosing which candidate receives their state’s electors. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (270) wins the Presidency. The number 538 is the sum of the nation’s 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia.

Each state’s electoral votes are counted in a joint session of Congress on the 6th of January in the year following the meeting of the electors. Members of the House and Senate meet in the House chamber to conduct the official tally of electoral votes. See the key dates for the 2016 election and information about the role and responsibilities of Congress in the Electoral College process.

The Vice President, as President of the Senate, presides over the count and announces the results of the vote. The President of the Senate then declares which persons, if any, have been elected President and Vice President of the United States.

The President-Elect takes the oath of office and is sworn in as President of the United States on January 20th in the year following the Presidential election.

Electors were created by our Founding Fathers as part of Article II of the Constitution (and amended by the 12th Amendment). The founders didn't want direct election of the President and Vice President because they felt the voters in the early days of the nation would not know enough about all the candidates to make wise decisions.

The Certificate of Vote from Michigan in the 2018 election
The Certificate of Vote from Michigan in the 2018 election

The Electoral College is administered by the Office of the Federal Register, which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Here's how the Electoral College works. In the fall, in each state, each party on the ballot chooses persons to be electors pledged to vote for particular candidates when the electors meet in mid-December. So when you vote for Romney or Obama, you're actually voting for electors pledged for vote for one of them during December meeting of the electors.

On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, voters go to the polls around the country and cast their ballots for President and Vice President. Although they might check Obama or Romney, they are actually voting for a slate of electors.

After the election, each state sends "Certificates of Ascertainment" to the Office of the Federal Register. The certificates bear the names of the electors pledged to vote for the winner of the popular vote. NARA staff review these to make sure they meet legal requirements. These individuals will cast their state's electoral votes in mid-December.

Vice President Richard Cheney hands a copy of a state s certificate to Senator Charles Schumer, in glasses, to read to the assembled Congress. (U.S. House of Representatives, Office of Photography)
Vice President Richard Cheney hands a copy of a state s certificate to Senator Charles Schumer, in glasses, to read to the assembled Congress. (U.S. House of Representatives, Office of Photography)

n mid-December, the electors in each state gather in the state capitol and cast their votes. After casting their votes, they prepare "Certificates of Vote." These certificates, along with the Certificates of Ascertainment, are sent to the Secretary of the Senate, the Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives, and other federal and state officials. The Senate's copies remained sealed, but at the Federal Register, staff inspect them to make sure they have been completed correctly.

The Office of the Federal Register must also track down electoral votes that come in late to ensure that they are in by the time Congress meets to count the votes. On occasion, Federal Register staff have had to ask the state police to track down a governor or crawl through piles of undelivered mail to find some votes gone astray.

On January 6, the votes are officially opened and counted in a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives with the Vice President presiding. A candidate must receive 270 of the 538 electoral votes to become President or Vice President.

If a candidate for President fails to receive 270 votes, the House itself will choose the President from among the three individuals who received the most electoral votes. In this process, each state receives one vote, and it's up to the House members from that state to decide how to cast it. The election has gone to the House twice, in 1801 and 1825.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York reads the electoral votes. (U.S. House of Representatives, Office of Photography)
Senator Charles Schumer of New York reads the electoral votes. (U.S. House of Representatives, Office of Photography)

If no one receives 270 votes for Vice President, the Senate will choose from among the top two vote-getters for Vice President. If a presidential candidate didn’t receive 270 votes, the person selected by the Senate as Vice President will serve as President until the House chooses a President. The Senate has elected the Vice President once, in 1837.

If no one receives 270 votes and neither the House nor the Senate elect a President and Vice President, the Speaker of the House, who is next in the line of succession, becomes Acting President on January 20 until the House elects a President.

How does the Electoral College work?

The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. A majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President. Your state's entitled allotment of electors equals the number of members in its Congressional delegation: one for each member in the House of Representatives plus two for your Senators.

Every four years, voters go to the polls and select a candidate for President and Vice-President. In all but two states, the candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state wins that state’s electoral votes. In Nebraska and Maine, electoral votes are assigned by proportional representation, meaning that the top vote-getter in those states wins two electoral votes (for the two Senators) while the remaining electoral votes are allocated congressional district by congressional district. These rules make it possible for both candidates to receive electoral votes from Nebraska and Maine, unlike the winner-take-all system in the other 48 states.

How are the electors selected?

This process varies from state to state. Usually, political parties nominate electors at their state conventions. Sometimes that process occurs by a vote of the party’s central committee. The electors are usually state-elected officials, party leaders, or people with a strong affiliation with the Presidential candidates.

Choosing each state's Electors is a two-part process. First, the political parties in each state choose slates of potential Electors sometime before the general election. Second, on Election Day, the voters in each state select their state's Electors by casting their ballots for President.

The first part of the process is controlled by the political parties in each state and varies from state to state. Generally, the parties either nominate slates of potential Electors at their state party conventions or they chose them by a vote of the party's central committee. This happens in each state for each party by whatever rules the state party and (sometimes) the national party have for the process. This first part of the process results in each Presidential candidate having their own unique slate of potential Electors.

Political parties often choose Electors for the slate to recognize their service and dedication to that political party. They may be state elected officials, state party leaders, or people in the state who have a personal or political affiliation with their party's Presidential candidate. (For specific information about how slates of potential Electors are chosen, contact the political parties in each state.)

The second part of the process happens on Election Day. When the voters in each state cast votes for the Presidential candidate of their choice they are voting to select their state's Electors. The potential Electors' names may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the Presidential candidates, depending on election procedures and ballot formats in each state.

The winning Presidential candidate's slate of potential Electors are appointed as the state's Electors—except in Nebraska and Maine, which have proportional distribution of the Electors. In Nebraska and Maine, the state winner receives two Electors and the winner of each congressional district (who may be the same as the overall winner or a different candidate) receives one Elector. This system permits the Electors from Nebraska and Maine to be awarded to more than one candidate.

Do electors have to vote for their party’s candidate?

Neither the Constitution nor Federal election laws compel electors to vote for their party’s candidate. That said, twenty-seven states have laws on the books that require electors to vote for their party’s candidate if that candidate gets a majority of the state’s popular vote. In 24 states, no such laws apply, but common practice is for electors to vote for their party’s nominee.

What happens if no one gets a majority of Electoral College votes?

If no one gets a majority of electoral votes, the election is thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives. The top three contenders face off with each state casting one vote. Whoever wins a majority of states wins the election. The process is the same for the Vice Presidency, except that the U.S. Senate makes that selection.

Can you lose the popular vote and win the electoral college vote?

Yes, a candidate could lose the popular vote and win the electoral college vote. This happened to George W. Bush in 2000, who lost the popular vote to Al Gore by .51% but won the electoral college 271 to 266.

When does the Electoral College cast its votes?

Each state’s electors meet on the Monday following the second Wednesday of December. They cast their votes then, and those votes are sent to the President of the Senate who reads them before both houses of Congress on January 6th.

Why does the Electoral College matter?

The Electoral College determines the President and Vice-President of the United States. The Electoral College system also distinguishes the United States from other systems where the highest vote-getter automatically wins. This so-called “indirect election” process has been the subject of criticism and attempted reform, though proponents of it maintain that it ensures the rights of smaller states and stands as an important piece of American federalist democracy.

How is the Electoral College calculated?

Each State is allocated a number of Electors equal to the number of its U.S. Senators (always 2) plus the number of its U.S. Representatives (which may change each decade according to the size of each State's population as determined in the Census).

Has an elector ever ‘gone rogue’ or broken his or her promise? Would that be legal?

Yes, this has happened many times. There’s even an insulting name for an elector who does so: a “faithless elector.”

But faithless electors have never affected the final result of any presidential election. And there haven’t been many in modern times; the last time was in 2004, when an anonymous elector in Minnesota cast his vote for John Edwards instead of the Democratic candidate, John Kerry. (Other electors thought that this might have been an honest mistake.)

More than a dozen states do not have laws on the books to punish faithless electors, meaning that an elector could legally change his or her mind and defy the popular vote. But according to the federal archives: “Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party. Throughout our history as a nation, more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged.”

Do electoral votes have a direct impact on Senate or congressional elections?

They do not.

How many electoral votes does each state have?

Every state gets at least three electoral votes, because a state’s number of electors is identical to the total number of its senators and representatives in Congress. Seven states have the minimum three electors.

Washington, D.C., also has three electoral votes, thanks to the 23rd Amendment, which gave the nation’s capital as many electors as the state with the fewest electoral votes.

California has the most electoral votes, with 55. Texas is next, with 38. New York and Florida have 29 apiece.

Do all of a state’s electoral votes go to one candidate?

In every state except two, the party that wins the popular vote gets to send all of its electors to the state capital in December.

In the nonconforming Maine and Nebraska, two electoral votes are apportioned to the winner of the popular vote, and the rest of the votes are given to the winner of the popular votes in each of the states’ congressional districts. (Maine has two congressional districts and Nebraska has three.)

Has anyone ever won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote?

Yes, this has happened four times. (At this point, people who were tuned in for the 2000 election are sneering at this explainer.)

In 2000, Al Gore was found to have won the popular vote by more than half a million votes, despite having lost to George W. Bush in an election that was sealed by a Supreme Court decision.

Andrew Jackson won the popular vote in 1824, but eventually lost the election to John Quincy Adams. In 1876, Samuel Tilden had more popular support than Rutherford B. Hayes, but lost the electoral vote. And Grover Cleveland lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison despite winning the popular vote.

How do they pick the Electoral College?

Choosing each state's Electors is a two-part process. First, the political parties in each state choose slates of potential Electors sometime before the general election. Second, on Election Day, the voters in each state select their state's Electors by casting their ballots for President.

Why is electoral college important?

The Electoral College was made at the beginning of the country itself, and was mentioned in the Constitution. It was created for many reasons. One reason is because “a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens” was needed.

What is popular vote and electoral college?

The "national popular vote" is the sum of all the votes cast in the general election, nationwide. The presidential elections of 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016 produced an Electoral College winner who did not receive the most votes in the general election.

How many electoral votes did Trump get?

Ultimately, Trump received 304 electoral votes and Clinton garnered 227, while Colin Powell won three, and John Kasich, Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Faith Spotted Eagle each received one. Trump is the fifth person in U.S. history to become president while losing the nationwide popular vote.

What section of the Constitution establishes the Electoral College?

Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Twelfth Amendment (Amendment XII) to the United States Constitution provides the procedure for electing the President and Vice President. It replaced the procedure provided in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3, by which the Electoral College originally functioned.

What is the difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College?

When it's all said and done, a candidate must win a majority — at least 270 — of electoral votes to win the White House. ... The obvious difference between the popular vote and electoral vote is the use of electors, or representatives for each state, in the electoral college.

References:

[1] U. S. Electoral College, Official - What is the Electoral College? https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/about.html

[2] How Does the Electoral College Work? https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/us/politics/how-does-the-electoral-college-work.html

[3]  Choosing a President: How the Electoral College Works https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2012/fall/electoral-college.html

[4] Electoral College Fast Facts https://history.house.gov/Institution/Electoral-College/Electoral-College/

[5] The Electoral College – What Is It and How Does It Function? https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2012/11/the-electoral-college-what-is-it-and-how-does-it-function/

[6] U. S. Electoral College, Official - What is the Electoral College? http://research.mnwest.edu/rlink.phtml?subject_id=51&resource_id=749&infotype_id=138&masterinfotype_id=13

[7] How the Electoral College Works | Election Law - University of Kentucky www.uky.edu/electionlaw/analysis/how-electoral-college-works