How the Electoral College Works

In 1787, two things forever changed the face of American politics: First, a group of national leaders drafted the U.S. Constitution, and second, they decided the average citizen wasn’t erudite enough to elect a president without the bridge of a system known as the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution as a compromise for the presidential election process. At the time, some politicians believed a purely popular election was too reckless and would give too much voting power to highly populated areas in which people were familiar with a presidential candidate. Others objected to the possibility of letting Congress select the president, as some suggested. The answer? An Electoral College system that allowed voters to vote for electors, who would then cast their votes for candidates, a system described in Article II, section 1 of the Constitution [source: Weingast].

The concept worked as expected until the 1800 election, when presidential hopefuls Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson each received the same amount of electoral votes. By then, political parties had become powerful influencers. Leaders of each party handpicked electors who, naturally, voted for their electing party’s candidates. The tie was broken by the House of Representatives, but resulted in the Constitution’s 12th Amendment, which spelled out the electoral voting process in more detail [source: Cornell University Law School].

Today, each state has a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. senators (two in each state) plus the number of its U.S. representatives, which varies according to the state’s population. For example, Kansas has two senators and four U.S. representatives for a total of six electoral votes.

Overall, the Electoral College includes 538 electors, 535 for the total number of congressional members, and three who represent Washington, D.C., as allowed by the 23rd Amendment. In the 2016 presidential election, highly populated California had the most sway with 55 electoral votes; other less populated states, such as Montana, had as few as three electoral votes [source: CNN].

On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the electors meet in their respective state capitals to officially cast their votes for president and vice president. These votes are then sealed and sent to the president of the Senate, who on Jan. 6 opens and reads the votes before both houses of Congress. The winner is sworn into office at noon Jan. 20 [source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration].

Selecting Electors

It’s presidential election day. You make a selection at your polling place and with your resplendent “I voted” sticker step into the November air, satisfied you’ve made your wishes known. But what if your vote, the one you thought you cast for a presidential candidate, was actually used to elect someone whose name you don’t even know — who would cast a presidential vote on your behalf?

This may sound bizarre, but this is exactly what takes place during a U.S. presidential election. By voting for a Republican presidential candidate, for example, you are really voting for a member of the Electoral College who is expected — but not required — to vote along party lines, too.

he votes of the Electoral College, comprised of 538 electors divvied up by state, elect the president weeks after Americans vote in a presidential election.

State legislatures are responsible for nominating electors. The process can actually differ from state to state. In general, though, the two most common ways are:

  • The elector is nominated by his or her state party committee (perhaps to reward many years of service to the party).
  • The elector campaigns for a spot and the decision is made during a vote held at the state’s party convention.

Usually, electors are people who are politically active in their party (be it Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Republican or Independent) or connected to the political arena. This includes political activists, party leaders, elected officials of the state and even people who have personal or political ties to the presidential candidates.

And while the Constitution makes no mention of qualifications that must be met to become an Electoral College member, it does determine an Electoral College member cannot be:

  • a member of Congress
  • a high-ranking U.S. official in a position of “trust or profit,” which refers to a member of Congress accepting an appointment to executive office
  • someone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the U.S. [source: U.S. National Archives and Records]

So could a member of the electoral college — whom you’ve helped elect by casting your presidential vote — decide to support an opponent instead? Find out in the next section.

Mobile Sliding Menu