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How the Electoral College Works in US Elections

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 6 min read

Every four years, the United States holds a general election to elect its next president and vice president. However, rather than hold the election through a popular vote of its citizens, the US uses a special system for these elections: the Electoral College.

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What Is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is the US’s system for electing the president and vice president of the United States. It is made up of a body of electors who are meant to represent the populations of their states, and these presidential electors cast votes to determine both the president and vice president of the United States. In order to be elected, a president and vice president must win an absolute majority (or 51 percent) of the Electoral College vote.

Currently, the Electoral College consists of 538 electors, broken up by state. This number comes from the number of senators (100) and representatives (435) elected to represent each state, plus an additional three electors for the District of Columbia (Washington, DC), which is allotted a number of votes equal to the number of electors of the least-populated state. Since electors are determined by the number of members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives each state has, the number of electors for each state ranges from 55 in California, 38 in Texas, and 29 each in Florida and New York, to 3 each in Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia.

How Does the Electoral College Work?

The Electoral College system works like this:

  1. Electors are nominated for each state. Electoral nominations differ by state—this can range from primary elections to nominations by the state’s governor.
  2. US citizens vote on election day. When citizens cast their votes for the president and vice president during the general election, they are actually casting their vote for a slate of electors who will represent their state in the Electoral College.
  3. The electors vote. Once votes have been cast, the group of electors gather in their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December and cast their individual votes for the president and vice president.
  4. The president and vice president are elected. Once Electoral College votes have been cast, the vote count is read in a joint session of Congress, and the winner of the absolute majority (currently 270 electoral votes) is elected.

The Electoral College generally operates on a “winner-take-all” or “unit rule” policy—that is, whichever presidential candidate receives the majority of a state’s electoral votes receives every vote in that state. For instance, a candidate who receives at least four Electoral College votes from Iowa will receive all six of Iowa’s votes. The only two states to split their Electoral College votes are Maine and Nebraska.

While technically most electors are free agents who can vote however they wish on election day, many states have passed state laws attempting to commit electors to specific votes—either to the winner of the popular vote in their state, to the party that nominated them to serve as electors, or to whichever candidate they may have already pledged their vote to.

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What Is the History of the Electoral College?

After the United States claimed its independence in 1776, a group of politicians convened to design their new country’s government. These conversations took place during several Constitutional Conventions in the late 1700s, and one topic of interest was how the United States would decide the election of the president. The framers were torn between three ways for the country’s president to be elected:

  • A popular vote of the citizens. While direct election seemed the most obvious since it allowed citizens to determine their leader, the framers were concerned that the difficulties of transportation and mass communication would make campaigning almost impossible, and that presidential candidates would focus their efforts on only densely populated cities, ignoring the rest of the country.
  • A vote in both houses of Congress. Since citizens would vote for their senators and representatives, a vote by these elected officials in Congress would allow citizens to indirectly vote for their president. However, the framers worried that this model would violate the separation of powers of the Executive and Legislative Branches of the government since candidates could engage in political bargaining with members of Congress.
  • A vote by every state’s legislature. A vote by every state’s legislature had similar pros and cons as a vote by the houses of Congress—citizens could indirectly vote for the president, but it could violate the separation of powers by encouraging presidential candidates to bargain with state legislatures and show favor toward legislatures that voted for them.

The framers eventually designed the Electoral College as a way to compromise—it would still allow citizens to indirectly vote for their president, but it would avoid the complications of political bargaining and separation of powers.

The Electoral College was first laid out in the Constitution (in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3). Since then, two major changes have come in the form of two constitutional amendments:

  • The Twelfth Amendment. The Twelfth Amendment revised the process for electing the president and vice president. Under the original rules, electors cast two votes for two candidates, and the candidate with the most votes became president, and the candidate with the second-most votes became vice president. After a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800, the Twelfth Amendment was put in place to require electors to cast separate ballots: to cast one vote specifically for president and one for vice president.
  • The Twenty-Third Amendment. The Twenty-Third Amendment extended voting rights to the District of Columbia—under the original rules, only official states had electors.

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How Are Electors Chosen?

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The US Constitution says that each state is allowed to determine its own process for selecting members of the Electoral College, so the way that electors are chosen for each state has changed over the years. Historically, most state legislatures simply chose their electors; however, electors today are nominated in several different ways, according to state:

  • State-party conventions. The majority of states allow their state parties to nominate slates of electors during state-party conventions.
  • State party’s central committee. Many states hold votes within the state party’s central committee, and these party leaders determine the electors for the state.
  • Other methods. Other states allow the governor to nominate electors, hold primary elections, or allow the state majority party’s candidate to nominate electors.

The only requirement for Electoral College members is that, according to the Constitution, they don’t hold an "Office of Trust or Profit under the United States,” which means they aren’t a member of the Senate or House of Representatives, a federal law-enforcement officer, military personnel, or a public employee of the federal government.

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