How the Electoral College Works

Learning About The Presidency

The Electoral College is a complicated system of choosing the president of the United States.

The first bizarre thing about how the Electoral College works is that Americans do not actually for a presidential candidate. They choose "electors," or the people who will cast the deciding ballots directly for the president.

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The Electoral College is a non-direct election artifact created by the Founding Fathers, most of whom distrusted direct democracy. Electoral votes are based on congressional representation, the sum of senators and representatives.

There are 538 electoral votes. To win the presidency, a candidate must win 270 of them.

Here's an explanation of how the Electoral College works.

Allocating Electors Among The States

House of Representatives
The U.S. House of Representatives has 435 members. House of Representatives

Each state has electors equal to the number of its senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress.

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In addition, per the 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the District of Columbia has been granted electors as though it were a state. Even though the political parties hold primary elections in U.S. territories, U.S. territories are not represented in the Electoral College.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama
Barack H. Obama is sworn in as president of the United States on the West Front of the Capitol. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted a winner-take-all popular vote system: the candidate who wins the most votes in the state wins the support of all of that state’s electors.

In two states, Maine and Nebraska, a single elector is allocated within each congressional district and two electors are chosen by statewide popular vote. Maine initiated this practice in 1972; Nebraska did in 1992. The 2008 election was the first where either state split its electoral votes. Nebraska allocated one electoral vote to Barack Obama and four to John McCain. More »

Casting The Electoral Votes

Electors meet in their respective state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for president and vice president.

Each elector casts one vote for president and one vote for vice president. Electors are technically free to vote for anyone eligible to be president, but in practice an elector pledges to vote for a specific candidate.

Five copies of the state's Certificate of Vote are completed and signed by each elector. One copy is sent to the president of the U.S. Senate by certified mail.

The Congressional Certification Of Election

The 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that the Congress assemble in joint session to count the electoral votes and declare the winners of the election. Subsequent federal law sets the date for this joint session of Congress: the sixth day of January in the calendar year immediately following the meetings of the presidential electors.

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The meeting is held at 1 p.m. in U.S. House of Representatives, and each chamber appoints two tellers to count the vote. If there are no objections, the presiding officer declares the result of the vote. To be valid, an objection must be lodged by both a Senator and a Representative.

Determining The Winners of The Election

In order to be elected, a candidate must have a majority (since 1964, at least 270) of the electoral votes. Should no candidate for president win a majority of the electoral votes, the decision is referred to the U.S. House of Representatives. Should no candidate for vice president possess a majority of the electoral votes, the decision is referred to the U.S. Senate.

Presidential Election By The House of Representatives

Should there be an electoral vote tie (such as 269-to-269) or no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes (such as 268-267-3), then the U.S. House of Representatives must go into session immediately to select the President.

The U.S. Constitution limits the House to selecting from the top three presidential candidates. Each state delegation has only one vote and the District of Columbia does not have a vote. A candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes (26) to become the President-elect.

The House of Representatives has chosen the President only twice: once under Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 (Thomas Jefferson, 1801) and once under the Twelfth Amendment (John Quincy Adams, 1825).

Vice Presidential Election By The Senate

If no candidate for vice president receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the Senate must elect a vice president. The U.S. Constitution limits the Senate to selecting from the top two vice presidential candidates.

At least two-thirds of the Senate must be present for balloting to take place. Each state receives two votes, per normal Senate rules. According to the 12th Amendment, a majority of the whole Senate (51 votes today) is required for election.

The Senate has elected the Vice President only once, on February 8, 1837. Richard Mentor Johnson (D-KY) was the controversial running mate of Martin Van Buren (D-NY), who was duly elected but Johnson received only only 147 electoral votes, one short of a majority.

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Gill, Kathy. "How the Electoral College Works." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, Gill, Kathy. (2016, August 23). How the Electoral College Works. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "How the Electoral College Works." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 21, 2017).