At UnitedStatesNow, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
During a national presidential election, each state sends representatives, members of the Electoral College to vote on behalf of the state's population. Our Constitution provides for the electors as a way of sharing power between the Federal and State governments in our country's system of federalism. This way, neither the government nor the population at large are completely responsible for electing a president.
Each state, plus the District of Columbia, gets a set number of electors based somewhat on population. The number of electors is just the number of Senators (always two) plus the number of Representatives in the House. This does not track proportionally, from state to state, based on population. The numbers are updated every ten years with results from the National Census. For the decade 2000-2010, there are 538 total electors. A presidential candidate must receive a majority of votes from the Electoral College, or 270 votes, to be declared the winner.
While the Constitution provides for such a system, it is not detailed in the methods of carrying it out. The Office of the Federal Register oversees the process of elector nomination, usually at state party conventions, and organizes their voting. Almost all states use a winner-takes-all system, so that electors are pledged to vote for whichever candidate wins the popular vote of the state. Only Maine and Nebraska use proportional systems that might award some electoral votes to one candidate and some to another. In fact, the electors are not legally bound to vote for the leading candidate, but they are usually loyal to their party. If there is no candidate who receives a majority of Electoral votes, the decision is made in Congress, where each state gets only one vote, cast by a Representative.
For almost as long as the Electoral College existed, there has been a debate over its efficacy. Those who'd like to abolish or renovate the system point out that it is possible to win the presidency without winning the national popular vote, which they feel is illogical. Others believe we no longer need such a carefully-guarded balance between "the masses" and a centralized government. Critics also point out that sparsely populated states, since they are guaranteed at least three electoral votes, have an unfair advantage in the disproportional allocation of electors. To make significant changes to the Electoral College, however, would require a Constitutional Amendment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Electoral College and how does it work?
The Electoral College is a unique system established by the U.S. Constitution for electing the president and vice president. Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to its total number of Senators and Representatives in Congress. When citizens vote for a presidential candidate, they are actually voting for a slate of electors pledged to that candidate. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (at least 270 out of 538) wins the presidency.
Why was the Electoral College created?
The Electoral College was created as a compromise between electing the president by a vote in Congress and electing the president by a popular vote of qualified citizens. The Founding Fathers established the Electoral College in the Constitution as a way to balance the power between larger and smaller states, provide a degree of separation from direct popular vote, and to ensure that only a candidate with widespread support across the country could be elected president.
How are each state's electors chosen?
Each state's political parties typically choose their own slate of potential electors during their state conventions or through a vote of the party's central committee. This occurs well before the general election. Electors are often party loyalists, and they pledge to support the party's candidate. The process for selecting electors varies by state and by party, but it is generally done with the goal of ensuring electors are faithful to their party's nominee.
Can electors vote for someone other than their party's candidate?
Electors are expected to vote for their party's candidate if that candidate wins the popular vote in their state, but there is no Constitutional provision or federal law requiring them to do so. Some states have laws that require electors to vote for their pledged candidate and may impose fines or disqualify "faithless electors" who vote contrary to their pledge. However, such instances are rare, and faithless electors have never altered the outcome of a presidential election.
Has there ever been a time when the Electoral College vote differed from the popular vote?
Yes, there have been instances where the Electoral College vote differed from the national popular vote. Notably, this occurred in the elections of 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. In each of these elections, the candidate who won the majority of electoral votes became president despite not having won the majority of the popular vote. This has led to ongoing debates about the effectiveness and fairness of the Electoral College system.