How The U.S. Electoral College System Works

Who Really Elects the President of the United States?

Congress
A joint session Of Congress tallies the Electoral Votes. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The Electoral College is not really a college at all. Instead, it is the important and often controversial process by which the United States selects the President of the United States every four years. The founding fathers created the Electoral College system as a compromise between having the president elected by Congress and having the president elected by the popular vote of qualified citizens.

Every fourth November, after almost two years of campaign hype and fundraising, more than 100 million Americans vote for the presidential candidates. Then, in the middle of December, the president and vice president of the United States are really elected. This is when the votes of only 538 citizens—the "electors" of the Electoral College System—are counted. 

How the Electoral College Elects the President

When you vote for a presidential candidate, you are really voting to instruct the electors from your state to cast their votes for the same candidate. For example, if you vote for the Republican candidate, you are really voting for an elector who will be "pledged" to vote for the Republican candidate. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all the pledged votes of the state's electors, in the 48 "winner take all" states and District of Columbia.

Nebraska and Maine award electors proportionally. The National Archives explains: "Maine has four Electoral votes and two Congressional districts. It awards one Electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the statewide, 'at-large' vote." Nebraska has five Electoral College votes, three awarded to the district winners, and two awarded to the statewide popular vote-getter.

Overseas territories of the United States, such as Puerto Rico, have no say in presidential elections, even though their citizens are U.S. citizens.

The Electoral College system was established in Article II of the Constitution and was amended by the 12th Amendment in 1804.

How Electors Are Awarded to States

Each state gets a number of electors equal to its number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives plus one for each of its two U.S. senators. The District of Columbia gets three electors. State laws determine how electors are chosen, but they are generally selected by the political party committees within the states.

Each elector gets one vote. Thus, a state with eight electors would cast eight votes. There are currently 538 electors, and the votes of a majority of them—270 votes—are required to be elected. Because Electoral College representation is based on congressional representation, states with larger populations get more Electoral College votes.

Should none of the candidates win 270 electoral votes, the 12th Amendment kicks in, and the election is decided by the House of Representatives. The combined representatives of each state get one vote and a simple majority of states is required to win. This has only happened twice. Presidents Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and John Quincy Adams in 1825 were elected by the House of Representatives.

What Are Faithless Electors?

While the state electors are "pledged" to vote for the candidate of the party that chose them, nothing in the Constitution requires them to do so. In rare instances, an elector will defect and not vote for his or her party's candidate. Such "faithless" votes rarely change the outcome of the election, and laws of some states prohibit electors from casting them. However, no state has ever prosecuted someone for not voting the way he or she has been pledged.

The 2106 election saw the most ever faithless electors, as seven were cast; the previous record was six electors who changed their votes, back in 1808.

When the Electoral College Meets

So we all go vote on Election Day, and before the sun sets in California at least one of the TV networks will have declared a winner. By midnight, one of the candidates will have probably claimed victory and others will have conceded defeat. But not until the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, when the electors of the Electoral College meet in their state capitals and cast their votes will we really have a new president- and vice president-elect.

Why the delay between the general election and the Electoral College meetings? Back in the 1800s, it simply took that long to count the popular votes and for all the electors to travel to the state capitals. Today, the time is more likely to be used for settling any protests due to election code violations and for vote recounts.

Isn't There a Problem Here?

Critics of the Electoral College system, of which there are more than a few, point out that the system allows the possibility of a candidate actually losing the nationwide popular vote but being elected president by the electoral vote. A look at the electoral votes from each state and a little math will show you how.

In fact, it is possible for a candidate to not get a single person's vote—not one—in 39 states or the District of Columbia, yet be elected president by winning the popular vote in just 11 of these 12 states:

  • California
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • Pennsylvania
  • Illinois
  • Ohio
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Virginia

Because 11 of the 12 states in the chart above account for exactly 270 votes, a candidate could win these states, lose the other 39, and still be elected.

Of course, a candidate popular enough to win California or New York will almost certainly win some smaller states.

Has It Ever Happened?

Has a presidential candidate ever lost the nationwide popular vote but been elected president in the Electoral College? Yes, five times.

  • In 1824, 261 electoral votes were available, with 131 needed to be elected president. In the election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson—both Democratic Republicans—neither candidate won the necessary 131 electoral votes. While Jackson won more electoral and popular votes than Adams, the House of Representatives, acting under the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, selected John Quincy Adams as the sixth President of the United States. Bitter over the process, Jackson and his supporters proclaimed the election of Adams a “corrupt bargain.”
  • In 1876, 369 electoral votes were available, with 185 needed to win. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, with 4,036,298 popular votes, won 185 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote with 4,300,590 votes but won only 184 electoral votes. Hayes was elected president.
  • In 1888, 401 electoral votes were available, with 201 needed to win. Republican Benjamin Harrison, with 5,439,853 popular votes, won 233 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Grover Cleveland, won the popular vote with 5,540,309 votes but won only 168 electoral votes. Harrison was elected president.
  • In 2000, 538 electoral votes were available, with 270 needed to win. Republican George W. Bush, with 50,456,002 popular votes, won 271 electoral votes. His Democratic opponent, Al Gore, won the popular vote with 50,999,897 votes but won only 266 electoral votes. Bush was elected president.
  • In 2016, a total of 538 electoral votes were again available, with 270 needed to be elected. Republican candidate Donald Trump was elected president, winning 304 electoral votes, compared to 227 won by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. However, Clinton received about 2.9 million more popular votes nationwide than Trump, a margin of 2.1 percent of the total vote. Trump’s Electoral College victory was sealed by popular vote wins in the perennial swing states of Florida, Iowa, and Ohio, as well as in the so-called “blue wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all Democratic strongholds in presidential elections since the 1990s. With most media sources predicting an easy victory for Clinton, Trump’s election brought the Electoral College system under intense public scrutiny. Trump detractors tried to protest his election and petitioned electors to cast faithless electors. Only two listened.

    Why the Electoral College?

    Most voters would be unhappy to see their candidate win the most votes but lose the election. Why would the Founding Fathers create a constitutional process that would allow this to happen?

    The Framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure the people were given direct input in choosing their leaders and saw two ways to accomplish this:

    1. The people of the entire nation would vote for and elect the president and vice president based on popular votes alone. A direct popular election.

    2. The people of each state would elect their members of the U.S. Congress by direct popular election. The members of Congress would then express the wishes of the people by electing the president and vice president themselves. An election by Congress.

    The Founding Fathers feared the direct popular election option. There were no organized national political parties yet, no structure from which to choose and limit the number of candidates. In addition, travel and communication were slow and difficult at that time. A very good candidate could be popular regionally but remain unknown to the rest of the country. A large number of regionally popular candidates would thus divide the vote and not indicate the wishes of the nation as a whole.

    On the other hand, election by Congress would require the members to both accurately assess the desires of the people of their states and to actually vote accordingly. This could have led to elections that better reflected the opinions and political agendas of the members of Congress than the actual will of the people.

    As a compromise, we have the Electoral College system.

    Considering that only five times in our history has a candidate lost the popular national vote but been elected by electoral vote, the system has worked pretty well.

    Yet, the Founding Fathers' concerns with direct popular elections have mostly vanished. The national political parties have been around for years. Travel and communications are no longer problems. We all have access to every word spoken by every candidate every day. The change in times has led people to campaign in favor of reforming the system, for example, so that more states have proportional voting to more accurately reflect the people's votes.