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What is the Electoral College

The Electoral College unifies, moderates, and protects American politics. It is part of what makes the United States a republic.

For more than two hundred years, the United States has enjoyed a uniquely peaceful and prosperous existence under a system of constitutional and representative government. One reason 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 of the United States.

Each state gets as many Electors as it has members of the U.S. House and Senate—the math is the same as in Congress.

Before the presidential election, each political party nominates people to become that state’s Electors—people who pledge to cast electoral votes for that party’s presidential candidate.

When citizens vote in a presidential election, we are really voting for our candidate’s Electors—if our candidate wins in our state, those Electors will represent us in the Electoral College, casting their electoral votes for our candidate.

The Constitution gives state legislatures the power to figure out how Electors are selected. In 48 states and DC, all the state’s Electors are chosen based on the statewide vote—this is called a winner-take-all system. In Maine and Nebraska, one Elector is elected from each Congressional District, and the remaining two are elected based on the statewide vote.

The Constitution requires Congress to set the day when Electors are chosen (Election Day) and the day when the Electors meet and cast electoral votes. The Constitution requires Electors to meet in their own states (the whole Electoral College never meets together—the Framers put this in the Constitution to avoid corruption). Once the Electors cast their electoral votes, the results are sent to Congress to count them and certify the official outcome. (See a full Electoral College timeline at the National Archives website.)

Every once in a while, an Elector doesn’t vote the way he or she pledged (so-called “faithless” Electors), but this has never come close to effecting the outcome of an election.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College as a way to minimize the risks of corruption, regionalism, and back-room politics in the selection of 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.)

The Electoral College works even better than the Framers expected. They thought the system would often deadlock as Electors exercised their independent judgment, leaving the final decision to the House of Representatives. In fact, Electors became faithful representatives of their states and the election has only gone to the House twice—in 1800 and 1824.

Because most states choose electors by winner-take-all, presidential candidates must have both a base of states where a majority of voters support the candidate and then must reach out into the most moderate, evenly balanced states to build enough support for an Electoral College majority.

The Electoral College turns swing states into microcosms of America, where candidates are forced to go beyond the big cities and reach out to all kinds of people. At the same time, safe states are essential for a party to have any claim to national status or any possibility of winning the presidency.

The system forces campaign strategists both to build national campaigns and to focus their outreach in the most politically balanced states. And while the Electoral College does not require a two-party system, it creates a healthy incentive for people to build the large coalitions that usually result in two big, diverse political parties.

To become President, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes—currently 270 out of 538.