Please help us! Donate
Government 101: Electoral College
What is the Electoral College?
Americans elect the President and Vice President through a method of indirect popular election. On the first Tuesday in November, voters cast their ballots for a presidential candidate. These votes actually count towards a group of electors who pledge to vote for a specific candidate in the Electoral College. The "Electoral College" is the group of citizens selected by the people to cast votes for President and Vice President.
The presidential/vice presidential pair who wins the popular vote in any given state receives all of the state's Electoral College votes 1. In the end, the winner of the race is the candidate who receives a majority (270 or more) of the 538 Electoral College votes. The results of the election aren't official until the President of the Senate counts the votes out loud at a special joint session of Congress held in early January.
In More Detail:
The 12th Amendment outlines the process for electing the President. While some state laws regarding this process differ, the general method for electing the president is explained below.
- Before the November election, political parties in each state create lists of potential electors (generally active members of the party) who pledge to vote for the party's candidate in the Electoral College.
- A state's number of electoral votes equals the number of the state's Congressional delegation (2 Senators + the number of Representatives). The District of Columbia receives three electoral votes, according to the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution.
- On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, voters cast their ballots. These votes go towards a block of electors who, in turn, will vote for a certain presidential candidate. The winner of the popular vote in a state receives the state's entire number of Electoral College votes (except in Maine and Nebraska)
- For example, if a Democratic presidential candidate receives the most votes in Texas, the 38 Democratic electors become the voting block representing the Lone Star State to the Electoral College. The Democratic presidential candidate receives 38 of the 538 total votes in the Electoral College from Texas. A candidate needs to collect at least 270 votes to win.
- Each state's block of electors (members of the winning candidate's party) assembles in their respective state capitol on December 17, 2012. At this meeting, the electors sign the "Certificate of Vote," which is sealed and delivered to the Office of the President of the United States Senate.
- A special joint session of the U.S. Congress convenes on January 6th. At this meeting, the President of the Senate reads the Certificates of Vote and declares the official winner.
Why do we have the Electoral College?
Electors were viewed as a compromise between a true popular election and an election by more qualified citizens. Some of the founders wondered if it would be wise to permit average citizens to vote but wanted to stay true to their republican principles. The Electoral College was their answer.
Because the system is written into the Constitution, an amendment would be required to alter the process.
Like the Senate, the Electoral College helps to distribute power away from the most populated areas of the US. California gets 55 votes compared to Wyoming’s 3, but this divide would be much greater in a purely popular vote.
Who are “Faithless Electors”?
A faithless elector is one who casts an electoral vote for someone other than the candidate they have pledged to elect. On 157 occasions, electors have cast their votes for president or vice president in a different manner than that prescribed by the legislature of the state they represent. Of those, 71 votes were changed because the original candidate died before the elector was able to cast a vote. Two votes were not cast at all when electors chose to abstain from casting their electoral vote for any candidate. The remaining 85 were changed by the elector's personal interest or perhaps by accident. Usually, the faithless electors act alone.
There are laws to punish faithless electors in 24 states. While no faithless elector has ever been punished, the constitutionality of state pledge laws was brought before the Supreme Court in 1952 (Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214). The court upheld those laws that require electors to pledge to vote for the winning candidate, as well as remove electors who refuse to pledge. As stated in the ruling, electors are acting as a function of the state, not the federal government, and states have the right to govern their officers. The constitutionality of punishing an elector for actual faithlessness, however, has never been decided by the Supreme Court. In any event, a state may only punish a faithless elector after the fact; it has no power to change their vote.
1. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where a proportional method for allocating votes is used.
Sources to learn more
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
U.S. Electoral College - List Of States And Votes
Below is the number of electoral votes each state receives (as of 2016).
Total: 538; Majority Needed to Elect: 270
|States: 1-5 Votes||Electoral Votes||States 6-9 Votes||Electoral Votes||States 10-15 Votes||Electoral Votes||States: 15 or More Votes||Electoral Votes|
|District Of Columbia||3||Colorado||9||Maryland||10||Georgia||16|
|South Dakota||3||South Carolina||9|