How Electoral Votes Are Awarded

A Look at How the 538 Votes Are Divvied Up In Presidential Elections

Texas delegates for Ted Cruz
Delegates from Texas take part in the roll call in support of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

There are 538 electoral votes up for grabs in every presidential election, but the process of determining how electoral votes are awarded is one of the most complicated and widely misunderstood facets of American presidential elections. The U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College, but the Founding Fathers had fairly little to say about how electoral votes are awarded by each of the states.

Here are some common questions and answers about how states allocate electoral votes in presidential contests.

Number of Electoral Votes Needed to Win

There are 538 "electors" in the Electoral College. To become president, a candidate must win a simple majority of the electors, or 270, in the general election. Electors are important people in each major political party who are chosen by voters to represent them in the selection of a president. Voters don't actually vote directly for the president; they choose electors to vote on their behalf.

Presidential Elector’s ID Tag
Texans Vote In Electoral College. Corbis Historical / Getty Images

States are allotted a number of electors based on their population and number of congressional districts. The larger a state's population, the more electors it is allocated. For example, California is the most populous state with about 39.5 million residents. It also holds the most electors at 55. Wyoming, on the other hand, is the least populous state with fewer than 579,000 residents. As such, it holds only three electors.

How Electoral Votes Are Distributed

States determine on their own how to distribute the electoral votes that have been allocated to them. Most states award all of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in the state. This method of awarding electoral votes is commonly known as "winner-take-all." So even if a presidential candidate wins 51 percent of the popular vote in a winner-take-all state, he is awarded 100 percent of the electoral votes.

Exceptions to Electoral Vote Distribution 

Forty-eight of the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote there. Only two states award their electoral votes in a different manner. They are Nebraska and Maine.

These states allocate their electoral votes by congressional district. In other words, instead of distributing all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote, Nebraska and Maine award an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district. The winner of the statewide vote gets two additional electoral votes. This method is called the Congressional District Method; Maine has used it since 1972 and Nebraska has used it since 1996.

The Constitution and Vote Distribution

Electoral College
An elector places his vote within the House of Representatives chamber of the Pennsylvania Capitol Building. Mark Makela / Getty Images

While the U.S. Constitution requires states to appoint electors, the document is silent on how they actually award votes in presidential elections. There have been numerous proposals to circumvent the winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes.

The Constitution leaves the matter of electoral-vote distribution up to the states, stating only that:

"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress."

The key phrase pertaining to the distribution of electoral votes is obvious: "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the states' role in awarding electoral votes is "supreme."

Before coming up with this system of electing the president, the framers of the Constitution considered three other options, each coming with drawbacks unique to the still-developing nation: direct election by all eligible voters, Congress electing the president, and the state legislatures electing the president. The problems in each of these options identified by the Framers were:

Direct election: With communication and transportation still in a relatively primitive state at the time of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, campaigning would have been nearly impossible. As a result, candidates in highly populated areas would have an unfair advantage from local recognition.

Election by Congress: Not only could this method cause distracting discord in Congress; it could lead to closed-door political bargaining and increase the potential for foreign influence in the U.S. electoral process.

Election by state legislatures: The Federalist majority believed that having the president elected by the state legislatures would force the president to favor those states that voted for him, thus eroding the powers of the federal government.

In the end, the framers compromised by creating the Electoral College system much as it exists today.

Electors vs. Delegates

Electors are not the same as delegates. Electors are part of the mechanism that chooses a president. Delegates, on the other hand, are distributed by the parties during the primaries and serve to nominate candidates to run in the general election. Delegates are people who attend political conventions to choose the party nominees.

Electoral College Ties

The 1800 election exposed a major flaw in the country's new constitution. At the time, presidents and vice presidents did not run separately; the highest vote-getter became president, and the second-highest vote-getter was elected vice president. The first Electoral College tie was between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his running mate in the election. Both men won 73 electoral votes.

An Alternative: National Popular Vote

Former Vice President Al Gore has expressed concern about the way most states award electoral votes. He and a majority of Americans support the National Popular Vote initiative, where states would cast all of their electoral votes for the presidential candidate winning the nationwide popular vote.    States that enter the compact agree to award their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Under this plan, the Electoral College would no longer be necessary.

View Article Sources
  1. Distribution of Electoral Votes.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration.

  2. "California  | 2019 Population Estimates." The United States Census Bureau, 4 Apr. 2019, census.gov.

  3. Wyoming  | 2019 Population Estimates.” The United States Census Bureau, 4 Apr. 2019, census.gov.

  4. Diorio, Daniel and Williams, Ben. The Electoral College, ncsl.org.

  5. Jones, Jeffrey M. “Americans Split on Proposals for Popular Vote.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 11 Sept. 2020.

  6. Polls Show More than 70% Support for a Nationwide Vote for President.” National Popular Vote, 23 June 2018.

  7. Daniller, Andrew. “A Majority of Americans Continue to Favor Replacing Electoral College with a Nationwide Popular Vote.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 31 May 202.