What Is the Electoral College?
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A closer look at how Americans elect their president
When Americans cast their votes for president, they are in reality directing other people — called electors — to vote for the candidate who receives the most votes in their state. The political party of the winning candidate in each state then sends its preselected electors to the state capital to vote. This is the Electoral College, and its members elect the president and vice president of the United States.
Why does this process exist? The framers of the Constitution established the Electoral College in the Constitution to forge a compromise between those who wanted the president to be elected by members of Congress and those who wanted a president elected by a popular vote.
Today, 538 electors constitute the Electoral College. Each state is allocated electors equal to its number of representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives (currently a total of 435) plus its two senators (a total of 100). The District of Columbia is also allocated three electors. These numbers can change every 10 years, based on the results of the census. State laws differ on how electors are chosen. Learn more here.
Since the nation’s founding, hundreds of proposals to reform or eliminate the Electoral College have aimed to change how Americans elect a president. But since the process is defined in the Constitution, only an amendment can change the system. Passing a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Representatives and in the Senate plus the approval of three-quarters of the states, or a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures (which has never happened).
In March 2020, a Pew Research Center study found that a majority of U.S. adults (58%) were in favor of amending the Constitution so the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationwide wins, while 40% preferred to keep the current system in which the candidate who receives the most Electoral College votes declares victory.
The number of elections since 1900 when at least one elector voted for someone other than the candidate he or she promised to support.
The number of electors who voted contrary to their state’s popular vote for president in 2016, the most who’ve done so since 1972. Electors generally vote according to their state’s popular vote.
The number of times a president has been elected by winning the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote. This happened in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.
What are the qualifications to be an elector?
The U.S. Constitution contains very few provisions relating to the qualifications of electors. Article II, section 1, clause 2 provides that no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector. As a historical matter, the 14th Amendment provides that State officials who have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies are disqualified from serving as electors. This prohibition relates to the post-Civil War era.
Each State’s Certificates of Ascertainment confirms the names of its appointed electors. A State’s certification of its electors is generally sufficient to establish the qualifications of electors.
Who selects the electors?
Choosing each State’s electors is a two-part process. First, the political parties in each State choose slates of potential electors sometime before the general election. Second, during the general election, the voters in each State select their State’s electors by casting their ballots.
The first part of the process is controlled by the political parties in each State and varies from State to State. Generally, the parties either nominate slates of potential electors at their State party conventions or they chose them by a vote of the party’s central committee. This happens in each State for each party by whatever rules the State party and (sometimes) the national party have for the process. This first part of the process results in each Presidential candidate having their own unique slate of potential electors.
Political parties often choose individuals for the slate to recognize their service and dedication to that political party. They may be State elected officials, State party leaders, or people in the State who have a personal or political affiliation with their party’s Presidential candidate. (For specific information about how slates of potential electors are chosen, contact the political parties in each State.)
The second part of the process happens during the general election. When the voters in each State cast votes for the Presidential candidate of their choice they are voting to select their State’s electors. The potential electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the Presidential candidates, depending on election procedures and ballot formats in each State.
The winning Presidential candidate’s slate of potential electors are appointed as the State’s electors—except in Nebraska and Maine, which have proportional distribution of the electors. In Nebraska and Maine, the State winner receives two electors and the winner of each congressional district (who may be the same as the overall winner or a different candidate) receives one elector. This system permits Nebraska and Maine to award electors to more than one candidate.
Do electors get to vote twice for President?
Electors do not vote twice for President. When they vote in the November general election, they aren’t electors yet; they are voting for themselves to be electors. They are the only ones who actually vote for President, which they do at the meeting of the electors (the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December).
Are there restrictions on who the electors can vote for?
There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their States. Some States, however, require electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote. These pledges fall into two categories—electors bound by State law and those bound by pledges to political parties.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Constitution does not require that electors be completely free to act as they choose and therefore, political parties may extract pledges from electors to vote for the parties’ nominees. Some State laws provide that so-called “faithless electors” may be subject to fines or may be disqualified for casting an invalid vote and be replaced by a substitute elector. The Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on the question of whether pledges and penalties for failure to vote as pledged may be enforced under the Constitution. No elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged. However, several electors were disqualified and replaced in 2016 for failing to vote as pledged.
It is rare for electors to disregard the popular vote by casting their electoral vote for someone other than their party’s candidate. Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party. Throughout our history as a nation, more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged.
The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) has compiled a brief summary of State laws about the various procedures, which vary from State to State, for selecting slates of potential electors and for conducting the meeting of the electors. You can download the document, “Summary: State Laws Regarding Presidential Electors ,” from the NASS website .
If the electors vote for President, why should I vote in the general election?
During the general election your vote helps determine your State’s electors. When you vote for a Presidential candidate, you aren’t actually voting for President. You are telling your State which candidate you want your State to vote for at the meeting of electors. The States use these general election results (also known as the popular vote) to appoint their electors. The winning candidate’s State political party selects the individuals who will be electors.
Major Problems that have occurred:
It’s time to abolish the Electoral College
By Darrell M. West
But there have been several contested elections. The 1800 election deadlocked because presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson received the same number of Electoral College votes as his vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr. At that time, the ballot did not distinguish between Electoral College votes for president and vice president. On the 36th ballot, the House chose Jefferson as the new president. Congress later amended the Constitution to prevent that ballot confusion from happening again.
Allegations of election unfairness also clouded the 2000 race. The contest between Republican George Bush and Democrat Al Gore was extremely close, ultimately resting on the fate of Florida’s 25 electoral votes. Ballot controversies in Palm Beach County complicated vote tabulation. It used the “butterfly ballot” design, which some decried as visually confusing. Additionally, other Florida counties that required voters to punch perforated paper ballots had difficulty discerning the voters’ choices if they did not fully detach the appropriate section of the perforated paper. Accordingly, on December 8, 2000, the Florida Supreme Court ordered manual recounts in counties that reported statistically significant numbers of undervotes. The Bush campaign immediately filed suit, and in response, the U.S. Supreme Court paused manual recounts to hear oral arguments from candidates. On December 10, in a landmark 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court struck down the Florida Supreme Court’s recount decision, ruling that a manual recount would violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Bush won Florida’s Electoral College votes and thus the presidency even though Gore had won the popular vote by almost half a million votes.
The latest controversy arose when Donald Trump lost the popular vote by almost three million ballots yet won the Electoral College by 74 votes. That made him the fifth U.S. chief executive to become president without winning the popular vote. This discrepancy between the Electoral College and the popular vote created considerable contentiousness about the electoral system. It set the Trump presidency off on a rough start and generated a critical tone regarding his administration.
In addition to the problems noted above, the Electoral College suffers from another difficulty known as the “faithless elector” issue in which that body’s electors cast their ballot in opposition to the dictates of their state’s popular vote. Samuel Miles, a Federalist from Pennsylvania, was the first of this genre as for unknown reasons, he cast his vote in 1796 for the Democratic-Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson, even though his own Federalist party candidate John Adams had won Pennsylvania’s popular vote. Miles turned out to be the first of many. Throughout American history, 157 electors have voted contrary to their state’s chosen winner. Some of these individuals dissented for idiosyncratic reasons, but others did so because they preferred the losing party’s candidate. The precedent set by these people creates uncertainty about how future Electoral College votes could proceed. This possibility became even more likely after a recent court decision. In the 2016 election, seven electors defected from the dictates of their state’s popular vote. This was the highest number in any modern election.
The problems outlined above illustrate the serious issues facing the Electoral College. Having a president who loses the popular vote undermines electoral legitimacy. Putting an election into the House of Representatives where each state delegation has one vote increases the odds of insider dealings and corrupt decisions. Allegations of balloting irregularities that require an Electoral Commission to decide the votes of contested states do not make the general public feel very confident about the integrity of the process. And faithless electors could render the popular vote moot in particular states. Yet there is a far more fundamental threat facing the Electoral College. At a time of high income inequality and substantial geographical disparities across states, there is a risk that the Electoral College will systematically overrepresent the views of relatively small numbers of people due to the structure of the Electoral College. As currently constituted, each state has two Electoral College votes regardless of population size, plus additional votes to match its number of House members. That format overrepresents small- and medium-sized states at the expense of large states.
That formula is problematic at a time when a Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program study found that 15 percent of American counties generate 64 percent of America’s gross domestic product. Most of the country’s economic activity is on the East Coast, West Coast, and a few metropolitan areas in between. The prosperous parts of America include about 15 states having 30 senators while the less prosperous areas encapsulate 35 states having 70 senators. Those numbers demonstrate the fundamental mismatch between economic vitality and political power. Through the Electoral College (and the U.S. Senate), the 35 states with smaller economic activity have disproportionate power to choose presidents and dictate public policy. This institutional relic from two centuries ago likely will fuel continued populism and regular discrepancies between the popular and Electoral College votes. Rather than being a historic aberration, presidents who lose the popular vote could become the norm and thereby usher in an anti-majoritarian era where small numbers of voters in a few states use their institutional clout in “leftbehind” states to block candidates and legislation desired by large numbers of people.
For years, a majority of Americans have opposed the Electoral College. For example, in 1967, 58 percent favored its abolition, while in 1981, 75 percent of Americans did so. More recent polling, however, has highlighted a dangerous development in public opinion. Americans by and large still want to do away with the Electoral College, but there now is a partisan divide in views, with Republicans favoring it while Democrats oppose it.
For instance, POLITICO and Morning Consult conducted a poll in March 2019 that found that 50 percent of respondents wanted a direct popular vote, 34 percent did not, and 16 percent did not demonstrate a preference. Two months later, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal reported polling that 53 percent of Americans wanted a direct popular vote, while 43 percent wanted to keep the status quo. These sentiments undoubtably have been reinforced by the fact that in two of the last 5 five presidential elections, the candidate winning the popular vote lost the Electoral College.
A more permanent solution would be to amend the Constitution itself. That is a laborious process and a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College would require significant consensus—at least two-thirds affirmation from both the House and Senate, and approval from at least 38 out of 50 states. But Congress has nearly reached this threshold in the past. Congress nearly eradicated the Electoral College in 1934, falling just two Senate votes short of passage. However, the conversation did not end after the unsuccessful vote, legislators have continued to debate ending or reforming the Electoral College since. In 1979, another Senate vote to establish a direct popular vote failed, this time by just three votes. Nonetheless, conversation continued: the 95th Congress proposed a total of 41 relevant amendments in 1977 and 1978, and the 116th Congress has already introduced three amendments to end the Electoral College. In total, over the last two centuries, there have been over 700 proposals to either eradicate or seriously modify the Electoral College. It is time to move ahead with abolishing the Electoral College before its clear failures undermine public confidence in American democracy, distort the popular will, and create a genuine constitutional crisis.