How Many Electoral Votes Does a Candidate Need to Win?

Electoral College
Staffers organize states ballots during the counting of the electoral votes from the 2016 presidential election. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It is not enough to get the majority of votes to become president. A majority of electoral votes are required. There are 538 possible electoral votes; 270 are required for a candidate to win the Electoral College vote.

Who Are the Electors?

Students should know that the Electoral College is not really a “college" as an academic institution. A better way to understand the word college is by reviewing its etymology in this context as a gathering of like-minded:

"...from Latin collegium 'community, society, guild,' literally 'association of collegae,' plural of collega 'partner in office,' from assimilated form of com 'with, together'..."

The selected representatives who are granted into the Electoral College number adds up to 538 total electors, all elected to cast votes on behalf of their respective states. The basis for the number of electors per state is population, which is also the same basis for representation in Congress. Each state is entitled to the number of electors equal to the combined number of their representatives and senators in Congress. At a minimum, that grants each state three electoral votes. 

The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, gave the District of Columbia a state-level parity, the condition of being equal, with a minimum of three electoral votes. After the year 2000, California could claim the highest number of electors (55); seven states and the District of Columbia have the minimum number of electors (3).

State legislatures determine who is selected in any manner they choose. Most use the winner-take-all, where the candidate who wins the state's popular vote is awarded the state's entire slate of electors. At this time, Maine and Nebraska are the only states that do not use a winner-take-all system; they award two electoral votes to the winner of the state's popular vote, while the remaining electors can cast a ballot for their own districts.

To win the presidency, a candidate needs more than 50% of the electoral votes. Half of 538 is 269. Therefore, a candidate needs 270 votes to win.

Why the Electoral College Was Created

The United States' system of indirect democratic voting was created by the Founding Fathers as a compromise, a choice between allowing Congress to elect a president or by giving potentially uninformed citizens the direct vote.

Two framers of the Constitution, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, opposed the popular vote for president. Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10 that theoretical politicians have "erred in reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights." He argued that men could not be "perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions." In other words, not all men had the education or the temperament to vote.

Hamilton considered how the "fears of tampering that could be introduced with direct voting" in an essay in Federalist Paper No. 68. Hamilton wrote: "Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption." Students could participate in a close reading of Hamilton's low opinion of the average voter in the Federalist Paper No. 68 in order to understand the context these framers were using in creating the Electoral College.

Federalist Papers Nos. 10 and 68, as with all other primary source documents, will mean students need to read and reread in order to understand the text. With a primary source document, the first reading allows students to determine what the text says. Their second reading is meant to figure out how the text works. The third and final reading is to analyze and compare the text. Comparing the changes to Article II through the 12th and 23rd Amendments would be part of the third reading.

Students should understand that the framers of the Constitution felt an Electoral College (informed voters selected by states) would answer these concerns and provided a framework for the Electoral College in Article II, paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution:

"The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves."

The first major "test" of this clause came with the election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran together, but they tied in the popular vote. This election showed a defect in the original Article; two votes could be cast for candidates running on party tickets. That resulted in a tie between the two candidates from the most popular ticket. Partisan political activity was causing a constitutional crisis. Burr claimed victory, but after several rounds and with an endorsement from Hamilton, congressional representatives chose Jefferson. Students could discuss how Hamilton's choice may have contributed to his ongoing feud with Burr as well.

The 12th Amendment to the Constitution was quickly proposed and approved with speed to correct the flaw. Students should pay close attention to the new wording that changed "two persons" to the respective offices "for President and Vice President":

"The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President,..."

The new wording in the 12th Amendment requires that each elector cast separate and distinct votes for each office instead of two votes for president. Using the same provision in Article II, electors may not vote for candidates from their state—at least one of them must be from another state.

If no candidate for president has a majority of the total votes, a quorum of the House of Representatives voting by states chooses the president. 

"... But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice."

The 12th Amendment then requires the House of Representatives to choose from the three highest recipients of electoral votes, a change in number from the five highest under the original Article II.

How to Teach Students About the Electoral College

A high school graduate today has lived through five presidential elections, two of which have been determined by the Constitutional creation known as the Electoral College. These elections were former President George W. Bush versus Al Gore and President Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. For them, the Electoral College has chosen the president in nearly half of the elections. Since the popular vote has only mattered a little more than half of the time, students need to be informed as to why the responsibility to vote still matters.

Engaging Students

There are new national standards for studying social studies (as of 2018) called the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies. In many ways, the C3s are a response today to the concerns expressed by the Founding Fathers about uninformed citizens when they wrote the Constitution. The C3s are organized around the principle that:

"Active and responsible citizens are able to identify and analyze public problems, deliberate with other people about how to define and address issues, take constructive action together, reflect on their actions, create and sustain groups, and influence institutions both large and small."

Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia now have requirements for high school civics education through state statutes. The goal of these civics classes is to teach students about how the United States Government operates, and that includes the Electoral College.

Students can research the two elections in their lifetimes that required the Electoral College: Bush v. Gore and Trump versus Clinton. Students could note the correlation of the Electoral College with voter turnout, with the 2000 election recorded voter turnout at 51.2% and the 2016 recorded voter turnout at 55.7%.

Students can use data to study population trends. A new census every 10 years may shift the number of electors from states who have lost population to states who have gained population. Students can make predictions as to where the population shifts may impact political identities.

Through this research, students can develop an understanding how a vote can matter, as opposed to a decision made by the Electoral College. The C3s are organized so that students will better understand this and other civic responsibilities, noting that as citizens:

"They vote, serve on juries when called, follow the news and current events, and participate in voluntary groups and efforts. Implementing the C3 Framework to teach students to be able to act in these ways—as citizens—significantly enhances preparation for college and career."

Finally, students can participate in a debate in class or on a national platform as to whether the Electoral College system should continue. Those opposed to the Electoral College argue that it gives less populated states an oversized influence in a presidential election. Smaller states are guaranteed at least three electors, even though each elector represents a much smaller number of voters. Without the three-vote guarantee, more populated states would have more control with a popular vote.

There are websites dedicated to changing the Constitution such as the National Popular Vote or the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which is an agreement that would have states award their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote.

These resources mean that while the Electoral College may be described as an indirect democracy in action, students can be directly involved in determining its future.

View Article Sources
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  7. The Federalist Papers No. 10.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy.

  8. The Federalist Papers: No. 68.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy.

  9. The 2nd Article of the U.S. Constitution.” National Constitution Center – The 2nd Article of the U.S. Constitution.

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  17. National Popular Vote, 22 May 2020.

  18. Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote.” National Popular Vote, 8 Mar. 2020.

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Your Citation
Kelly, Melissa. "How Many Electoral Votes Does a Candidate Need to Win?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 29, 2020, Kelly, Melissa. (2020, September 29). How Many Electoral Votes Does a Candidate Need to Win? Retrieved from Kelly, Melissa. "How Many Electoral Votes Does a Candidate Need to Win?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).