Electoral College

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The 2012 Electoral College vote distribution.

The Electoral College is the process through which the President of the United States is elected to office. The process was formed as a compromise between allowing either the United States Congress or popular vote to determine the outcome of presidential elections. Each state receives a number of votes equal to the total number of their delegation to the United States Congress.[1] The vote casters, known as electors, are chosen by rules differing in each state, but many are elected during each party's state conventions. All states other than Maine and Nebraska give all the state's votes to the winner of the popular vote in their state. The winners in Maine and Nebraska receive two votes - representing the state's Senators - while the remaining votes can be split between candidates.[2]

There are a total of 538 electors among the 50 states, including three votes allotted to the District of Columbia. Of the 538 votes, a candidate must win at least 270 to become President of the United States.[1]


The Framers of the Constitution struggled to determine an effective way of electing a president and debated between a number of options, each with its own issues in a developing nation. Direct election from eligible voters, Congress electing the president and allowing state legislatures to vote for a president were the most debated options. The issues raised with each option were as follows:[3]

  • Direct election: Communication and transportation made campaigning nearly impossible, meaning candidates in highly populated areas would be favored due to local recognition.
  • Congressional election: It was thought a Congressional election would lead to discontent in Congress and could lead to political bargaining and be susceptible to international influences.
  • State legislature election: It was thought an election by state legislatures would lead to the erosion of federal powers because the president would show favor to the electors.

The Framers came up with a compromise by creating the Electoral College. Electors, a number equal to each states' Congressional delegation, would be chosen to cast the votes for president.[3] Each elector was given two votes, with the candidate with the second highest vote total elected vice president.[4] Each state's legislature was permitted to form the rules on how the electors were chosen.[3] Among the original rules of the Electoral College were:[4]

  • Electors were to meet separately in their states in order to mitigate brokering political deals.
  • Electors did not gather together to cast their votes.
  • At least one of the candidates had to be chosen from a state other than the elector's.
  • A vote equaling at least the majority of the number of the electors was required to elect a president.
  • The United States Congress set the dates to meet electors.

In the Constitution

The Framers included the formation of the Electoral College in Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution. The section originally read as follows:
Note: The following text is a transcription of the Constitution in its original form. Sections that are linked have since been amended or superseded.

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice President.

The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.

The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.[5]

XII Amendment

The original rules did not establish separate votes for president and vice president, only ruling the winner president and runner-up vice president. In 1796, political parties began running on joint tickets, specifying president and vice president. This caused the electors to have to agree on voting for a presidential candidate and vice presidential candidate, but refrain from casting at least one of their votes for the vice president in order to achieve the party's goal. One elector did not hold their vote in 1800, resulting in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr. The tie went to the United States House of Representatives to be resolved, which led to the passage of the 12th Amendment.

The 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804 and created the following rules:[4]

  • Each state's electors were to meet in one location, but separate from other states' delegations.
  • The "safe harbor" provision was added. The provision provided that if a state's results were disputed and the state's legislature passed a procedure to resolve the issue, an finalized agreement can be made within six days prior to the election.
  • Votes for president and vice president were cast as separate ballots, and holding true to the Constitution, one of the votes must be for someone outside of the elector's state.

The 12th Amendment reads as follows:
Note: The following text is a transcription of the Constitution in its original form. Sections that are linked have since been amended or superseded.

The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; -- the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; -- The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States."[5]

XXIII Amendment

The 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961. The amendment allocated electoral votes to the District of Columbia equal to the number of delegates it would have if it were a state, but not to exceed the number of votes given to the least populated state.

The 23rd Amendment reads as follows:

Section 1

The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct: A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.
Section 2
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.[5]


Selection of elector candidates


Each state is charged with establishing how electors are chosen. The only people barred from serving as electors by the Constitution are those who hold an "Office of Trust or Profit under the United States," including members of the legislature and judiciary, federal law enforcement officers and military personnel and other public employees of the federal government.[4]

The 2012 meeting of Ohio's electors.

Elector nominations

Thirty-two states use state party conventions to nominate major party candidates to the position of elector. Five states use the state party's central committee to nominate candidates. Other methods include nomination by governor, nominations based on unspecified party, the use of primary elections and by the state's preferred presidential candidate. Minor party candidates have different state specified nominations.[4]

Election of electors

Originally, the electors were chosen by the legislators in each state. However, voters now choose all electors nationwide. When voters go to the polls on election day, they cast votes for the electors who are nominated for each presidential candidate's party. In 48 of the 50 states, a "winner-take-all" system is used to determine where all of the state's electoral votes will go. Whichever party's electors receive the most votes get to allocate all of the state's votes to their chosen candidate for both president and vice president. The exceptions to the "winner-take-all" system are Maine and Nebraska. These states split the votes based on districts.[4]

"Faithless electors"

The Constitution does not require electors to vote for their pledged candidate or even party if their party wins the popular vote, but some states require electors to vote according to the popular vote or vote according to their political pledges. Electors who choose to go against their pledged votes are known as "faithless electors." In these states, electors who do not vote according to their pledges can be fined or their votes can be nullified and replaced by the party. In United States history, no elector has voted against their pledge, so the Supreme Court has no precedent as to whether "faithless electors" can be prosecuted. States that have laws punishing "faithless elector," including the District of Columbia, are as follows:[2][4]

The following states have no requirements obligating voters to vote for their pledged candidates:

Vote distribution

There are 538 electors in the Electoral College process. Each state is allocated one electoral vote for every member of their congressional delegation, meaning one for each member of the U.S. House and one for each of their two Senators.[4] The District of Columbia is allocated votes under the 23rd Amendment as if they were a state, meaning two votes representing Senators, and more votes determined by its population. However, the number of votes for the District of Columbia cannot exceed that of the least populated state.[6] The District is currently allocated three votes. California is the most populated state and holds 55 votes.[4]

Arguments in favor of the Electoral College

Geographically distributed national support

Since no single region contains a majority of electoral votes, candidates cannot win by focusing only on regional issues while leaving other areas of the country out. It also encourages a candidate to select a running mate from a different region in order to build coalitions of states while campaigning. Those who support this theory suggest that even more important that winning a majority vote, is the ability to gain wide distribution of support across the country. In the event that the popular vote is very close, the thought is that the candidate with a wider distribution of support would beat a candidate with more popular support.[3]

Enhanced minority influence

In states with concentrations of ethnic and racial minorities or special interest groups, often being states with high numbers of electoral votes, winning over those groups can swing an election due to the "winner-takes-all" system in the Electoral College. The votes of minority groups can carry more influence than their amount of votes would suggest.[3]

Two party system stability

For a third party to win the presidency, they would need to have enough electoral votes to prevent a majority to any candidate and have enough U.S. House support to be elected over the two major party candidates. Because of this, the Electoral College process essentially forces third party voters to merge into one of the two major parties. Likewise, the two major parties, seeking the votes to win the election can mold their platforms to gain the votes of third party movements. The goal is to have two parties representing the centers of their respective platforms. Supporters of this theory suggest that extremists would have more incentive to campaign if the elections were based solely on popular vote, because if runoff elections were required to win the presidency, parties would tend toward more radical platforms to gain more support.[3]

Maintains federal system of representation

As a requirement by the federal system of the United States, certain responsibilities must be left up to the states when it comes to representation in the federal government. The structure of the Electoral College provides the states the ability to determine the outcome of presidential elections, due to its similar setup to the United States House of Representatives and United States Senate, balancing the power of smaller states with that of the most populous.[3]

Arguments against the Electoral College

Chance of majority candidate losing

There are three possible ways a presidential candidate could lose the popular vote but still be elected as president.[3]

  • If three candidates split the electoral votes in a way that none reach the majority required, either one candidate would have to withdraw from the race and give the support of his electors to another candidate, or the U.S. House of Representatives would be charged with electing the president, per the 12th Amendment.
  • If one candidate's support was heavily concentrated in more populous states, but another candidate's support is spread out geographically and by only a slim majority, a candidate receiving only a minority of the popular vote could win the electoral vote.
  • If a third party received enough votes that no candidate gets more than 50% of the popular vote, candidates can still be elected by a majority electoral vote. This is not uncommon in U.S. history and has happened 15 times.

Historical instances

  • In 1824, four candidates split the electoral college vote in a way that none received the majority. John Quincy Adams was elected president by the House even though Andrew Jackson received more electoral votes.[3]
  • In 1836, the Whig Party ran three candidates in different areas of the country. Their thought was that the local candidates would win their party the majority of electoral votes at which time, they would choose amongst themselves who would be president. The Democratic-Republican candidate, Martin Van Buren, won the majority electoral vote and the presidency.[3]
  • In 1876, Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote but lost the electoral majority by one vote to Rutherford B. Hayes.[3]
  • In 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the electoral majority to Benjamin Harrison.[3]
  • In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral majority to George W. Bush.[7]

"Faithless electors" possibility

While a "faithless elector" has never changed the outcome of an election, there have been seven instances of an elector casting a vote for a candidate other than for the one they pledged. This was often attributed not to the elector trying to sway the election a certain way but in trying to make a statement due to the rarity of the occurrence.[3]

Depressed voter turnout

Since a candidate with a majority of the popular vote can still lose a presidential election, some argue it creates a disincentive to participate in the presidential election. No matter how high the voter turnout is, the state still receives the same amount of electoral votes for a presidential candidate. Others do not believe this is an issue because of the other offices at stake during any particular election day, from state offices to U.S. House and Senate seats.[3]

Inaccurate reflection of the population

Because each state has a minimum of three electoral votes, votes from those in the least populated states count more toward the electoral vote than votes from those in more populous states. For instance, in 1988, the seven least populated states combined to count for as many electoral votes as Florida, yet the total population of those states was more than 6.5 million than that of Florida at 9.6 million voters.

Another example of the failure to provide an accurate reflection of the population is when it comes to third party candidates. If a third party candidate does not carry a majority in any state, they could carry a significant minority of the popular vote throughout the country, but they may not get a single electoral vote in the election.[3]

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