Understanding America’s Electoral College

Understanding Americas Electoral College

The election for the President of the United States is always an interesting event and there are many peculiarities in it that attract special interest and attention of the students of US political system. One such peculiarity is the system of Electoral College which is actually a process, not a place. Anyone watching the presidential race needs to understand that due to the Electoral College, voters cast their ballots not for a candidate but for a slate of electors – party activists, including friends and allies of the contender – who will support their choice.

What is Electoral College?

The Electoral College comprises 538 electors who cast votes to decide the next President and Vice-President of the United States. When voters go to the polls on November 8 — Tuesday after the first Monday in November — they will be choosing which candidate receives their state’s electors. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (270) wins the Presidency. The number 538 is the sum of the nation’s 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia.


One of the original intentions of the Electoral College was to have a body of experts who were knowledgeable about the candidates and would cast their vote based upon merit. Over time, however, presidential electors have been chosen due to their commitment to their respective parties and the likeliness that they will be loyal to their party’s ticket. Today, it is expected that electors will not exercise their judgement and instead simply rubber stamp the results from the November election.

Electors per state

Electoral votes are allocated based on the census. The number of Electoral College votes to be cast by each state was last adjusted by state population totals from the 2010 decennial census and it is effective till the 2020 presidential elections. The bare minimum of votes ranges form 3-55 at present. Small states like Alaska and Wyoming, and Washington, DC have 3 while California has the most of them — 55.

Qualifications for an elector

The US Constitution says electors cannot be senators, representatives or anyone “holding an Office of Trust or Profit” in the federal government. The 14th Amendment, however, 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. Most electors are members of local governments, or civilians with strong political ties.

How are the electors selected?

This process varies from state to state. In each presidential election year, a group of candidates for elector is nominated by political parties and other groupings in each state, usually at a state party convention, or by the party’s state committee. It is these elector-candidates, rather than the presidential and vice-presidential nominees, for whom the people vote. In most states, voters cast a single vote for the slate of electors pledged to the party presidential and vice-presidential candidates of their choice. The slate winning the most popular votes is elected; this is known as the winner-take-all, or general ticket, system. These electors are usually state-elected officials, party leaders, or people with a strong affiliation with the Presidential candidates.

How does the Electoral College work?

In all but two states, a candidate who wins 50.1 percent of the popular vote is awarded 100 percent of its electoral votes. In Nebraska and Maine, electoral votes are assigned by proportional representation, meaning that the top vote-getter in those states wins two electoral votes (for the two Senators) while the remaining electoral votes are allocated by congressional district. These rules make it possible for both candidates to receive electoral votes from Nebraska and Maine, unlike the winner-take-all system in the other 48 states.

The number game

One peculiar result of this system is that a candidate can win a majority of the national popular vote but lose in the Electoral College, by losing narrowly in populous states and winning in some smaller states. It doesn’t happen often, but whenever it does, the US goes through a paroxysm of hand-wringing over this seemingly undemocratic mechanism. In the most recent case, Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote in 2000, but George W. Bush won the presidency.

What if none gets 270?

If no one wins 270 Electoral College votes, the election goes to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation casts a single vote, regardless of how many voters the delegation represents. Wyoming (population 585,000) and California (population 39 million) each get one vote. And the delegations aren’t bound to vote for the candidate who won the most votes in their state.

Then, after the House elects the president, the Senate picks the vice-president, with each senator getting one vote. It’s theoretically possible that Congress could elect a president and vice-president from different parties.

Democratic? Oh, really?

From the outset, America’s founders were aware of the dangers of government by plebiscite. Alexander Hamilton worried about giving power to the people because “they seldom judge or determine right.” Fearing “an excess of democracy,” they interposed institutional buffers between the popular will and government decisions. Until 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures, not directly elected by the voters. This labyrinthine system for choosing the president reflects the ambivalence of America’s founders about popular democracy. They were suspicious of the rabble — the public — having its way on the basis of misinformation or a lack of understanding of the issues.

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