How the US Electoral College System Works

Who Really Elects the President of the United States?

electoral college

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The Electoral College is an important and often controversial process by which the United States selects the president 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 136 million Americans cast their votes for the presidential candidates. Then, in the middle of December, the president and vice president of the United States are actually elected. This takes place when the votes of only 538 citizens—the "electors" of the Electoral College System—are counted. 

How the Electoral College Works

The Electoral College system was established in Article II of the Constitution and was amended by the 12th Amendment in 1804. When you vote for a presidential candidate, you are in fact 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 in the November election, you are really just picking an elector who will be pledged to vote for the Republican candidate when the Electoral College votes in December. 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 and Records Administration 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 are awarded to the district winners and two are given 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 residents are U.S. citizens.

How Electors Are Awarded

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. As of the 1964 election, there are 538 electors, and the votes of a majority of them—270—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 mandates the election be 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.

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 their 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 they were pledged.

The 2016 election saw the most ever faithless electors (seven); the previous record was six electors who changed their votes in 1808.

When the Electoral College Meets

The public casts their votes on the first Tuesday after Nov. 1, and before the sun sets in California, at least one of the TV networks likely will have declared a winner. By midnight, one of the candidates will have probably claimed victory and others will concede 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 to cast their votes, will there actually be a new president- and vice president-elect.

The reason for the delay between the general election and the Electoral College meetings is that during the 1800s, it 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.

Criticisms of the System

Critics of the Electoral College system point out that it 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 in 39 states or the District of Columbia, yet be elected president by winning the popular vote in just 11 of these 12 states (the number of electoral votes is in parentheses):

  • California (55)
  • New York (29)
  • Texas (38)
  • Florida (29)
  • Pennsylvania (20)
  • Illinois (20)
  • Ohio (18)
  • Michigan (16)
  • New Jersey (14)
  • North Carolina (15)
  • Georgia (16)
  • Virginia (13)

Because 11 of these 12 states 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.

When the Top Vote-Getter Lost

Five times in America's history presidential candidates have lost the nationwide popular vote, but been elected president in the Electoral College:

  • 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 of 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 4,033,497 popular votes, won 185 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote with 4,288,191 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 5,449,825 popular votes, won 233 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Grover Cleveland, won the popular vote with 5,539,118 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 50,455,156 popular votes, won 271 electoral votes. His Democratic opponent, Al Gore, won the popular vote with 50,992,335 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 the 227 won by Democrat 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. 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 elector votes. Only seven 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, and no structure from which to choose and limit the number of candidates.

Also, 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, the Electoral College system was developed.

Considering that only five times in the nation's history has a candidate lost the popular national vote but been elected by electoral vote, the system has worked well. Yet, the Founding Fathers' concerns with direct popular elections have mostly vanished. The national political parties have been around for years. Travel and communication are no longer problems. The public has access to every word spoken by every candidate every day.

These changes have led to calls for reforms to the system, for example, so that more states have a proportional allocation of electoral votes to more accurately reflect the popular vote.

California, the largest state, gets 55 electoral votes for its estimated 39.5 million people as of July 2019. That's only one electoral vote per 718,182 people. On the other extreme, thinly populated Wyoming gets 3 votes for its estimated 579,000 people as of July 2019, which amounts to one electoral vote per 193,000 people.

The net effect is that smaller population states have greater representation in the Electoral College, while larger states are, essentially, underrepresented.

Bill Would Change How Electoral Votes are Counted

In response to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators announced two proposals related to election administration, including one that would reform the Electoral Count Act, the 1887 law that still governs the process of casting and counting Electoral College votes in Congress. The Electoral Count Act came up several times during the House select committee's hearings investigating the attack on the Capitol. 

“From the beginning, our bipartisan group has shared a vision of drafting legislation to fix the flaws of the archaic and ambiguous Electoral Count Act of 1887,” the U.S. senators said in a joint statement.

Led by Senators. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the effort to reform the law would need 60 votes to break a Republican filibuster and pass in the Senate. The measure also has 16 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans. 

The Electoral Count Act itself was created after the disputed election of 1876 that saw Democrat Samuel Tilden win the popular vote but lose the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes because of contested election results, as three Southern states sent in competing returns. Ten years later, Congress enacted the Electoral Count Act to avoid similar situations by establishing a clearer process for certification of the electoral votes. However, some legal experts argue the drafters of the law had done a “terrible job.”

Members of both major parties opened the door to updating the Electoral Count Act nearly a year after the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which came following then-President Donald Trump's pressure campaign against then-Vice President Mike Pence to abandon his ceremonial role in certifying the results and help overturn the election.

Advocates for reforming the Electoral Count Act argue that the law isn't clear enough about the roles the vice president and Congress play in certifying election results and that Trump and his supporters had tried to exploit that weakness.

Under the law, as it exists now, only one member of the House and one member of the Senate are needed to challenge any state's set of electors. The proposed new language would raise that threshold, shifting the requirement to 20% of the members of each chamber of Congress.

The new law would also “strike a provision of an archaic 1845 law that could be used by state legislatures to override the popular vote in their states by declaring a 'failed election'—a term that is not defined in the law.”

Finally, the bill would also reaffirm that the “constitutional role of the Vice President, as the presiding officer of the joint meeting of Congress, is solely ministerial.”

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Longley, Robert. "How the US Electoral College System Works." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, September 1). How the US Electoral College System Works. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "How the US Electoral College System Works." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).