How the American Electoral College works

By Nathaniel Dove
Nov. 7, 2016

Americans dropping a ballot in the box on Tuesday will cast their votes directly for their representatives in Congress, but not for the president. Instead, they will vote for electors who are part of an institution known as the Electoral College.

The Electoral College dates back to the founding of the American republic in the late 18th century, when it was nearly impossible for a single candidate to travel to all of the states in the union. The Electoral College was designed to prevent the election of the president by Congress and also by popular vote. The framers of the Constitution feared that a popular vote would allow larger states to hijack the process.

What exists today is a bigger version of what the framers had in mind, though no less dedicated to the idea of checks and balances.

How It Works

Voters who tick a box for president are actually voting for presidential electors. Presidential candidates designate electors in each state who pledge to vote for that candidate. Should the candidate win the popular vote in that state, his or her electors go on to that state’s capital to record their vote. More than half of the states have laws requiring the electors to vote for the candidate they are pledged to, but there is no federal law against violating a pledge. Still, historically, 99 per cent of electors have upheld their pledges.

In almost all states, the winner of the state’s popular vote takes all Electoral College votes for that state. The exceptions are Nebraska and Maine, which both award two votes to the statewide winner and one to the winner of each of the state’s congressional districts.
The number of electoral votes is calculated by adding the number of Senate seats that each state has–always two–to the number of seats that state has in the House of Representatives, which depends on the population of the state. The state with the most electoral college votes is California, with 55. The smaller states and the District of Columbia have three votes each. (Interestingly, D.C. has only one representative in Congress, who cannot vote there.)

In the 2016 election the Electoral College has 538 electors. This means that a candidate needs 270 votes–half plus one–to become president.

Some states are predictably Republican or Democrat: for instance, Texas is Republican and California is Democrat. But some states regularly go either way, like Michigan or Florida. These are called swing states, and candidates fight heated battles over their highly valued votes. This is why some candidates spend more time and money in some states than others. Candidates also court the vote from larger states, meaning that some smaller states barely figure into the candidates’ campaigning, if at all.

Electoral Distortion

Under the Electoral College system, it is possible–though extremely rare–for a candidate to lose the popular vote but win in the Electoral College. The last time this happened was in 2000 when George W. Bush beat Al Gore. Bush had 47.87% of the vote and 271 electoral votes, whereas Gore had 48.38% of the popular vote but only 266 electoral votes.

However, such distortions have only occurred four times in 52 elections. Normally the Electoral College vote parallels the popular vote while also giving respectable voting weight to the smaller states. This electoral system also ensures that a candidate must get votes from across the country to win.

Should the election result in a tie (which has never happened) then the House of Representatives chooses the president from among the candidates and the Senate selects the vice president.

Electors are called to their state capitol on Dec. 19 to vote. The votes are formally counted on Jan. 6, and the new president is inaugurated on Jan. 20.