Overview

Every four years people start talking about something that few actually understand: the Electoral College. While there is a lot of confusion about this “college,” it is central to our system of electing the President and Vice President of the United States.

What is the Electoral College?

In short, the Electoral College is a group of “electors” who decide the new President and Vice President. When Americans go into the voting booth they are not really voting for a candidate but rather for these electors who are expected to vote for their party’s nominee.

Currently, there are 538 electors. The number of electors is based on the number of federal Representatives a state has plus the two Senators each state gets. Under the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, the District of Columbia gets 3. Each state’s number of electors can change after the federal census that takes place every ten years – when the number of House members for an individual state can either increase or decrease.

For a Presidential ticket to win, it must get at least 270 electoral votes. If that does not happen, then the House of Representatives votes for the President, and the Senate votes for the Vice President.

The Electoral College never meets as a collective group. Rather, each state brings its slate of electors together after the election on the second Wednesday of December. Then, states send their votes to the President of the Senate who reads the results to both chambers on January 6th.

Who are the electors?

Electors are those who are designated by their respective state political parties to vote for their party’s candidate should that candidate win the popular vote in their state. If the Democrat wins, for example, the Democratic electors for that state are expected to vote for that candidate. Almost anyone can be selected an elector except federal Representatives and Senators and those considered to be in “Trust or Profit” offices under the Constitution (generally executive appointments). Electors tend to be party activists and elected state officials.

There is no constitutional obligation for an elector to vote for the nominated ticket once that ticket has won; however, many states have set punitive rules – ranging from monetary fines to criminal charges – for those who don’t. In reality, only a handful of electors have ever voted for a different candidate (called “faithless electors”).

Can Someone Lose the Popular Vote but Win the Electoral College?

Yes. It has happened 4 times, most recently between President George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. Al Gore won almost 500,000 more popular votes but President Bush won 271 electoral votes when it was certified that he won Florida. Andrew Jackson (1824), Samuel Tilden (1876) and Grover Cleveland (1888) also won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote. This can happen, in part, since a candidate can win the majority of voters in a state with a smaller number of electoral votes but barely win one with a larger allocation.

Why This System?

Many historians say this system was a major compromise during the Constitutional Convention. Some wanted the House of Representatives to elect the President, others the state legislatures and still others a strict popular vote. In the end, the Founders compromised on a system where American voters select a slate of electors who then vote for the winning candidate, yet another example of how the Founders wanted a varied system of checks and balances.

Criticisms

One of the obvious criticisms comes from those who think Americans should directly elect the person who will hold the highest political office. Others believe that larger states (California has 55 electoral votes) garner too much leverage in an election under this system.

The Electoral College is integral to our Presidential election system. Despite critics it is unlikely to change. To change or update the Electoral College takes an amendment to the Constitution, and there is currently no major movement in Congress or the states to do so.

Key Facts

  • There are 538 members of the Electoral College.
  • A candidate for President must win 270 electoral votes to become President.
  • It is possible to win the Electoral College and not win the popular vote.
  • Electors meet in each state the second Wednesday of December to finalize their votes and sends them to the President of the Senate who reads the results for both chambers on January 6th.
  • The states with the highest number of electors include California (55),  Texas (38), Florida (29), New York (29), Illinois (20), Pennsylvania (20) and Ohio (18). The states with the lowest (which is 3 each) include Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. The District of Columbia also has 3 electoral votes.

For a full list of states and their electoral votes, please click here.

Resources

Click here for the PDF version