How The US Electoral College System Works

Who Really Elects the President of the United States?

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Longley, Robert. "How The US Electoral College System Works." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-the-us-electoral-college-works-3322061. Longley, Robert. (2017, September 2). How The US Electoral College System Works. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-the-us-electoral-college-works-3322061 Longley, Robert. "How The US Electoral College System Works." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-the-us-electoral-college-works-3322061 (accessed September 19, 2017).
Joint Session Of Congress Tallies Electoral Votes
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, over 90 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.

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

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. While state laws determine how electors are chosen, 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. Since 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.

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.

So we will all go vote on Tuesday, 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 some 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.

Can that happen? Yes, and it has.

A look at the Electoral Votes From Each State and a little math will tell you that the Electoral College system makes it possible for a candidate to actually lose the nationwide popular vote, but be elected president by the Electoral College.

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

There are 538 total votes in the Electoral College and a presidential candidate must win a majority—270—electoral votes to be elected. Since 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, a total of 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, there was a total of 369 electoral votes 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, there was a total of 401 electoral votes 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, there was a total of 538 electoral votes 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% 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. Trump became the fifth person in U.S. history to become president despite losing the nationwide popular vote.With most media sources predicting an easy victory for Clinton, Trump’s election brought the Electoral College system under intense public scrutiny.

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 US 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 three times in our history has a candidate lost the popular national vote but been elected by electoral vote and that in both cases the popular vote was extremely close, 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.

Electoral College Summary

  • Votes cast by the people of the United States -- known as the "popular vote" -- are used to choose the president and vice president "indirectly" through the Electoral College.
  • Popular votes cast in the presidential election are actually being cast for a number of electors. Each state gets a number of electors equal to the state's number of representatives in the House and Senate.
  • There are a total of 538 electors.
  • The candidate winning the most popular votes in a state gets all of that states electoral votes.
  • The first candidate to win 270 or more electoral votes is elected.

It is possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote and still be elected president by the Electoral College. Five presidents have been elected in this manner: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016.

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Longley, Robert. "How The US Electoral College System Works." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-the-us-electoral-college-works-3322061. Longley, Robert. (2017, September 2). How The US Electoral College System Works. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-the-us-electoral-college-works-3322061 Longley, Robert. "How The US Electoral College System Works." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-the-us-electoral-college-works-3322061 (accessed September 19, 2017).