How Electoral Votes Are Awarded

A Look at How the 538 Electoral 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. Here's the thing you should know: 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.

How Many Electoral Votes Are Needed to Win an Election

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.

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 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 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 

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. 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 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.

The Constitution and Vote Distribution

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."

Electors and Delegates

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. 

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.

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.

Electoral College Alternatives

There are other ways, yes, but they are untested. So it's unclear whether they'd work better than the Electoral College. One of them is called the National Popular vote plan; under it, states would cast all of their electoral votes for the presidential candidate winning the nationwide popular vote. The Electoral College would no longer be necessary.