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How the Electoral College works

Trent England - Dec 14, 2020

Electoral College

We walk through a few of the most common questions and misunderstandings about the Electoral College.

As the Electoral College meets to vote, many Americans don’t understand how this process functions. Today, we will walk through a few of the most common questions and misunderstandings about the Electoral College.

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is, to be exact, the group of representatives (Electors) chosen in each state to cast the official ballots (electoral votes) for President and Vice President of the United States.

Each state gets as many Electors as it has members of the US House and Senate—the math is the same as in Congress. To become President, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes—currently 270 out of 538.

Where did the Electoral College come from?

It was created by our Founding Fathers and included in the Constitution. The Founders needed to establish an executive branch separate from Congress but wrestled with selecting the President. After much debate, the Constitutional Convention decided a system of Electors was the fairest and safest way of choosing the President.

Why was it created?

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College to minimize the risks of corruption, regionalism, and back-room politics in selecting the nation’s executive. They rejected a national popular vote because it offered no protection against regional candidates, and they feared it could be more easily manipulated.

The Electoral College forces candidates to build national support, unifying rather than dividing the country. (Our greatest failure of domestic tranquility, the American Civil War, occurred only when other political forces overcame the Electoral College incentives that favor moderate, two-party politics and national unity.)

Why not have a nationwide popular vote?

In addition to concerns about division and manipulation, a nationwide popular vote could end in a nationwide recount that might take months to resolve as opposed to the Electoral College, which isolates disputed outcomes in particular states.

The Electoral College also ensures candidates have to appeal to large swaths of America and can’t focus solely on turning out their bases. Without the Electoral College, Democrats would likely spend most of their time turning out the vote in California, and Republicans would do the same thing in Texas.

Ultimately, the Constitution designed by the Founding Fathers created a republic where the states are a check on central government power. They did not create a democracy because they believed in protecting human rights, including those in the minority, and in the importance of political stability. The Electoral College is part of a system of checks and balances that has worked for nearly 250 years, and we shouldn’t discard this model now.

How do states decide how to allocate their Electors?

States have discretion and flexibility under the Constitution, which says, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”

In the past, states have used this power in many different ways, including having the state legislature appoint Electors. Over time the most common practice has become to select Electors based on who wins the statewide vote, known as the winner-take-all method. Forty-eight states and DC use this method, while Maine and Nebraska give two of their electoral votes to the statewide winner, and the rest are awarded to the winner in each Congressional district.

Where do Presidential Electors come From?

Each political party nominates people to be the Electors for their ticket at their convention held in the presidential election year. Sometimes these convention votes are very competitive, and becoming an Elector involves lobbying and campaigning, while in some states, the process is much more relaxed and informal.

Usually, choosing Electors involves nominations, seconding of nominations, speeches, some discussion, and then a vote. In the end, each party nominates a slate of Electors. The number of Electors depends on the population of their state.

Do we vote directly for President?

No. When you vote on election day, your ballot indicates the name of parties’ nominees, but you actually vote for a slate of Electors chosen by that candidate’s political party. For example, a vote for Donald Trump in Virginia was a vote for the Republican slate of Electors chosen by the state party who pledged to cast their electoral votes for Donald Trump.

Does the Electoral College physically meet?

Yes, but not all together. The Electors from each state meet in their respective state capitols on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December of a presidential election year and cast their electoral votes, which are subsequently transmitted to Washington, D.C.

What Happens if there is a tie or no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College?

In this rare case, which hasn’t occurred since 1824, the United States House of Representatives selects the President. The delegation of each state gets one vote, and whichever candidate receives a majority of the delegations’ votes becomes President. The Senate selects the Vice President.