How Electoral Votes Are Distributed

Explanation of How States Allocate Electoral Votes

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

One of the most complicated and widely misunderstood facets of the Electoral College is how electoral votes are distributed in presidential elections in the United States. While the the U.S. Constitution establishes the Electoral College, what requirements did the Founding Fathers have for how electoral votes are distributed by the states?

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

How Many Electoral Votes Are There?

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.

Related Story: The First Electoral College Tie

States are allotted electors based on their population and number of congressional districts. The larger a state's population is, the more electors is is allocated. For example, California is the most populous state with about 38 million residents. It also holds the most electors at 55. Wyoming, on the other hand, is the least populous state with fewer than 600,000 residents. As such, it holds only three electors.

How Are Electoral Votes Distributed to Presidential Candidates?

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."

Do All States Distribute Electoral Votes That Way?

No, but almost all do: 48 of the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote there.

Which States Don't Use the Winner-Take-All Method?

Only two states award their electoral votes in a different manner.

They are Nebraska and Maine.

How Do Nebraska and Maine Distribute Electoral Votes?

They 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 awards 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.

Doesn't the U.S. Constitution Prohibit Such Distribution Methods?

Not at all. In fact, it's just the opposite.

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."

Are Electors the Same As Delegates?

No. Electors are not the same as delegates. Electors are part of the mechanism that chooses a president. Delegates, on the other hand, distributed by the parties during the primaries and serve to nominate candidates to run in the general election.  

Related: How Delegates Are Awarded in the 2016 Presidential Race

Delegates are people who attend political conventions to choose the party nominees.

Controversy Over Electoral Vote Distribution

Former Vice President Al Gore has expressed concern about the way most states award electoral votes. He and a growing number of Americans support the National Popular Vote initiative. 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.