The Electoral College – How It Works


When you go into the voting booth next November (assuming you are at least 18 years of age and a registered voter), you may think you will be voting for the next President, but that is not the case. Only 538 people have the privilege of voting for President. The rest of us are voting for those people, members of the Electoral College.

When the Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution, the selection of the President presented a major problem. The Founding Fathers did not trust the common man to be able to intelligently decide between men of different states. They did, however, trust the average man to know the leading men of their own state. So they created an indirect election system to choose the President and Vice-President.

Voters would choose electors, who would then meet and choose the next president and vice-president. These electors would meet in their respective state capitals and calmly, objectively choose the best man for the job. Each elector would have two votes for President, with the requirement that at east one of the men he voted for must be from a different state. The runner-up would be Vice-President, providing the second best man in the nation for the second office. This system worked well for the first two elections, before the development of political parties.

In 1796, the first election with political parties created unforeseen problems. Both parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, nominated two candidates for president in an attempt to capture both offices. Because of political maneuvering, the President and Vice-President were of different parties and political opponents. In 1800, the same system resulted in the two candidates from the Democratic-Republicans tying in electoral votes, throwing the race into the House of Representatives (the deciding body if no candidate wins a majority of the electoral vote).

Because of this development, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified. Each elector would now have one vote for President, and in a separate race, one vote for Vice-President. The runner-up for president wins no office. Since the Vice-President would be the President’s running mate from his own party, rather than his opponent from the other party, this eliminated the problem of a President and Vice-President of different parties.

This new system changed the nature of the vice-presidency. Whereas before the 12th Amendment the Vice-President was the second most important man in the nation, after the 12th Amendment the Vice-Presidency no longer attracted men of the same caliber. The Vice-Presidency became a place filled by men who could attract more votes to the ticket, usually older statesmen at the end of their career. For example, both of James Madison’s Vice-Presidents died in office.

Over the years, the ballot for electing the Electors has changed. Originally, the ballot would list just the candidates for Elector, with no mention of the presidential candidates’ names. With the growth of political parties, candidates for Elector would run pledged to a candidate. In many cases, these pledged Elector candidates would be grouped under the name of the presidential candidate to whom they were pledged. Party names and symbols were eventually added to make choosing easier.

The next change was to list Elector candidate names under the presidential candidate to whom they were pledged, but allowing voters only to vote for an entire group, or party ticket. Eventually, the Elector names were left off the ballot, and only the presidential candidates’ names appeared. This is the case in almost all states today.

On Election Day in November, we will be choosing the Electors. Whichever candidate gets the most popular votes wins all of that states electoral votes. The amount of electoral votes each state has is determined by totaling the number of senators and representatives that state has in Congress. For example, California with 52 Representatives and 2 Senators has 54 electoral votes, more than any other state in the nation.

Several states have moved away from the winner-take-all method, giving one electoral vote to the popular vote winner in each congressional district, and 2 electoral votes to whoever wins the most popular votes statewide. Maine and Nebraska have had this method for the last two elections, but so far it has not made a difference. The candidate winning the statewide vote has also won each individual Congressional district vote.

Once chosen, these Electors meet in their respective state capitals in December and cast their votes for President and Vice-President. These votes are then certified by the state official in charge of elections and sent to Washington, D.C. When Congress convenes in January, they open and count the electoral votes in a joint session, and a winner is declared in each race, for President and for Vice-President. The Constitution calls for the President of the Senate (the Vice-President of the United States) to preside at this joint session. This has led to several times when a sitting Vice-President had to declare himself the loser, such as Nixon in 1961 and Hubert Humphrey in 1969. More often, the Vice-President skipped this meeting, letting the President Pro Tempore of the Senate preside in his place.

To win, a candidate must have a majority of the electoral vote, which with the current 538 electoral votes possible, means 270 are needed to win. If no candidate gets a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives must choose from among the three top finishers in the electoral vote. When this happens, each state delegation has one vote, making California and Delaware equal. The House of Representatives has chosen the President on two occasions. The first in 1800 was before the 12th Amendment. The other in 1824 was after the 12th Amendment when a four-way race prevented any candidate from capturing a majority of electoral votes.

If no candidate for Vice-President wins a majority of the electoral vote, the Senate chooses the next Vice-President from the top two finishers in the Electoral College. This has only happened once, in 1836. Although Martin Van Buren had a clear majority of electoral votes for President, his running mate, Richard Johnson did not have a majority in the race for Vice-President. The Senate eventually chose Johnson.

On two occasions, the candidate who won the popular vote lost in the Electoral College. In 1876, Samuel Tilden won more popular votes than Rutherford B. Hayes. But after a Congressional investigation into voting fraud, Hayes won in the Electoral College, 185 to 184. In 1888, Grover Cleveland, running for re-election, won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison.

Several plans have been suggested as a replacement for the Electoral College. The most popular of these plans calls for the abolition of the Electoral College with the President and Vice-President being selected by popular vote. Both the largest and smallest states tend to oppose this plan since it would lessen their political power and influence as states. Another plan calls for a system similar to Maine’s, where each Congressional district gets one electoral vote with two being won on a statewide basis. This plan seemed to be gaining in popularity until it was discovered that by using that method, Nixon would have been elected President in 1960.

It does not look as though the current Electoral College system will be changed in the near future. The winner-take-all basis discourages third party or minor candidates, thereby strengthening our two party system. The Electoral College also seems to magnify the margin of victory, giving a clear mandate to a President who might not otherwise have one.

So on election night, remember. Following the popular vote is always exciting, to see who is winning and by how many millions of votes. But that doesn’t count. The winner will be the candidate who wins the most electoral votes, with 270 being the magic number for victory.