Electoral College: FAQ's
- What is the Electoral College?
- Where is the Electoral College mentioned in the Constitution?
- What is the composition of the Electoral College?
- How many votes does each state receive?
- How many electoral votes does a candidate need to win in order to become president?
- When and where does the Electoral College meet?
- What happens if no candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes?
- How are electoral votes apportioned?
- If I'm actually voting for an elector, then why did I see "Barack Obama" and "John McCain" on my 2008 presidential ballot?
- Do electors ever vote for someone other than the person they've promised to vote for?
- Is it true that several presidents have been elected without winning the popular vote?
- How can a candidate win the popular vote and still lose the Electoral College?
- Why was the Electoral College put into place?
- Why does your organization want to abolish the Electoral College?
- What do you want to replace it with?
- I still have more questions!
The Electoral College is the mechanism by which the president and the vice president of the United States are chosen. When an individual American votes in a presidential election, he or she is actually voting for an elector -- an individual who will cast a ballot on his/her behalf in the election that actually chooses the president.
The system is analogous to electing a second Congress, which has the sole duty of picking a president.
The method for selecting the President of the United States is laid out in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. Two amendments also deal with the Electoral College; the 12th, which fixed an embarrassing flaw in the original Constitution that had allowed Thomas Jefferson to tie in the College with his running mate, Aaron Burr, and the 23rd Amendment, which gives Washington D.C. electoral votes (three, the same as the least populous state, Wyoming).
The Electoral College is composed of 538 electors chosen by the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Each state receives a number of votes in the Electoral College equal to its total representation in both Houses of Congress. For example, California, which has 53 representatives in the House and two in the Senate, casts 55 votes in the Electoral College. Since the passage of the 23rd Amendment, the District of Columbia also receives a number of electoral votes (currently three) equal to the number that it would cast if it were a state. No other U.S. territory has a voice in the election of the president, although some do in presidential primaries.
In order to become president, a candidate must win more than half of the votes in the Electoral College (currently that would be 270 of the 538 total electors).
The Electoral College does not come together to meet as a body; rather the chosen electors gather in the capital of each state to officially cast their votes for president and vice president. These ballots are then transmitted to the president of the Senate who officially declares the winner in front of both the House and the Senate.
The meeting of electors takes place on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December of a presidential election year.
If not candidate receives a majority of electoral votes the election is decided by the House of Representatives, with each state receiving one vote regardless of its size (i.e. the 53 representatives from California would collectively cast one vote on behalf of the entire state, as would the two representatives from Rhode Island). Whoever wins a majority of those votes becomes president. However, the House does not elect the vice president-- that job goes to the Senate, opening up the possibility of having a president and vice president from different parties.
Each state can dole out its electoral votes in whatever way it sees fit. Currently, 48 of 50 states and the District of Columbia give all of their electoral votes to the candidate that receives the most votes in that state. The two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska. (Read more about Maine and Nebraska here.) Currently, 533 of the 538 electoral votes go to a candidate who wins a majority in a state or the District of Columbia.
Electors can theoretically vote for whomever they want-- however in practice they pledge to vote for a certain candidate. This has created a system in which the American people vote indirectly for the president by voting for an elector (or statewide slate of electors) who supports their candidate of choice. This is further streamlined by the fact that most states do not list the names of potential electors on a ballot, but rather the names of the candidates they've promised to vote for.
It happens surprisingly frequently. In fact, 2008 marked the 56th presidential election in the United States, and in those 56 elections, 19 times there has been one or more faithless elector. That's roughly 34%, or one-third of all elections involving the Electoral College. That includes faithless electors in 2000 and 2004. While 29 states have laws requiring electors to vote for the candidate they've promised to vote for, the legal consequences involved are usually minimal, and might not be much of a deterrent against a person who wants to change history.
Yes, it is! While George W. Bush's 2000 victory over Al Gore is the most recent example, three other presidents have been elected despite losing the popular vote -- John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. If Abraham Lincoln had faced a single Democratic candidate in 1860, he would have probably lost the popular vote badly, but still won the Electoral College. In any event, he became president with less than 40% of the popular vote. As of 2008, about 1 in 10 of all presidents have been elected without the popular vote, representing about 7% of all elections. There have also been a number of close calls in the 20th century. In addition, presidents are frequently elected with less than 50% of the vote -- meaning that fewer than half of all Americans thought that candidate was the best person for the job. For more on this, see FairVote's National Popular Vote section.
A misalignment of the popular and electoral vote generally results from one candidate narrowly winning a number of states with a majority of the electoral votes, while losing badly in other states. Consider the following model of a country with five states, each with 100 voters and one electoral vote:
While candidate A receives more votes than candidate B, candidate B wins three of the five states, and therefore, the presidency.
To use a real world example, in 1860 Abraham Lincoln secured a majority of the seats in the Electoral College while winning less than 40% of the national vote, and virtually no votes from the South. This was possible because Lincoln was able to win narrow electoral majorities in the northern states, which had a majority of seats in the college.
Lincoln's support in the North was not unanimous, and souther opposition to Lincoln was unanimous, but with the Electoral College in place, this did not matter.
The Senate can also skew Electoral College results. Because each state's representation in the College is equal to its total congressional representation, each state receives two votes in the College that are in no way tied to its population. This gives an advantage to whichever party can win the votes of a greater number of states, regardless of the distribution of the national population.
The Electoral College was a compromise adopted by the Founding Fathers, some of whom wanted the president elected directly, while others preferred selection by Congress. The Electoral College allowed for the election of a president who has the support of the national electorate. But, if several candidates split the national vote, the election is sent to the legislature. Since the Founding Fathers assumed this would happen often, the Electoral College had something to offer everyone and won out -- not because it was anyone's first choice, but because it was at least minimally acceptable to everyone involved.
There are a couple of other reaosns that the College made some sense to the Founders in the late 18th century, but not the early 21st.
The Electoral College allowed the 3/5ths compromise to be carried over into the election of the president. In the 18th century, southerners had no intention of allowing their slaves to vote in federal elections-- however, southerners wanted the slave population to count towards representation to avoid domination from the populous North.
By extension, creating an electoral system that was based not on individual votes but on congressional representation gave the South an expanded role in picking the president. Though northern states hardly liked the idea of southerners receiving extra votes for their slaves, they were wiling to compromise on the issue -- adopting the so-called "3/5ths compromise" that counted slaves as 60% of a person for purposes of drawing up the national legislature, thus giving the South some extra heft in picking both Congress and the president.
Americans wouldn't be able to make intelligent decisions. Many of the framers worried that poor communications technology and low literacy rates would make it difficult for Americans to know enough about candidates from different regions of the country to make informed electoral choices. Whatever the merits of that concern in 1789, it certainly isn't true today -- the internet, cable networks and mass print media means that voters can be well informed and get information at their convenience.
There would be no national political parties. The founders incorrectly assumed that the populations of most states would vote for favorite sons, dividing the national electorate between a number of candidates, none of who would have anything approaching a majority of the popular vote. Of course this turned out to be wrong -- large-scale political parties sprung up almost immediately, and except for the election of 1860 at least one presidential candidate has always managed to win at least 40% of the popular vote.
Details of FairVote's support of a direct election for president can be found on many pages throughout this site, starting here with our National Popular Vote section, but our primary objectives are:
- The Electoral College does not treat all Americans equally.
- The Electoral College turns presidential elections into massive efforts to win the votes of a small number of voters in a few key states, rather than the support of the American people as a whole.
- The Electoral College makes it possible to elect a president who has lost the popular election.
- The Electoral College disenfranchises millions of Americans by discriminating against non-citizens of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, such as residents in American territories.
- The Electoral College is inconsistent with the fundamental American principles of fairness and equality.
FairVote would like to see the Electoral College replaced with a simple direct election-- one person, one vote. Preferably a replacement system would require that a candidate obtain an outright majority of votes cast (50%+1), which would require an instant runoff mechanism to be sure the leader with majority support is elected.
We're happy to try to answer them. E-mail us at info(at)fairvote.org.