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What Is the Electoral College?

When Americans vote for their President, they are actually voting for people called "electors." Those electors then cast their ballots for President and Vice President.

Although millions of American citizens vote, it takes 270 elector votes to win the Presidential election. Sometimes the people give a candidate more votes, in the popular vote, than the candidate gets from the 270 electors.

A recent example of such a result—before the Election of 2016—is the Election of 2000. That year:

  • For the "popular vote," the Gore/Lieberman team received 50,996,582 votes while the Bush/Cheney team received 50,456,062 votes.
  • For the "electoral vote," the Gore/Lieberman ticket received 266 votes while the Bush/Cheney ticket received 271 votes.

It is the "elector vote" which matters the most in selecting America's President/Vice President, however, not the "popular vote." With fewer electoral votes, Gore/Lieberman lost to Bush/Cheney in 2000.

This seemingly weird system is called the Electoral College.

When we hear the word "college," we think of Oxford, Harvard and places of study. The Electoral College is not a place, however. It's a process.

It all started when America's Founding Fathers wanted to give the people a role in choosing their President (instead of just having Congress make the choice). The Electoral College came into being as a result of the Founders compromising between the people selecting and Congress selecting the President.

Each American state has the same number of "electors" as it has members of Congress. If a state has 50 members of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators, totaling 52 members of Congress, that state also has 52 electors. The Electoral College has a total of 538 electors

The Electoral-College process turns the voting for President into a winner-takes-all for every state except two (Maine and Nebraska). Even if the popular vote in any given state is really close, the result is still "winner takes all." 

Here's an example of California's electoral vote in the Election of 2012. The "Certificate of Vote" shows us that every one of the 55 electoral votes for President was given to Barack Obama and every one of the 55 electoral votes for Vice President was given to Joe Biden.

We can also view this in map format for the 2012 election:

Are the electors, for every state, required to cast their ballots for the majority winner in that state? In other words ... if the majority of citizens in a state have selected one presidential candidate, do the electors have to vote for that same candidate?

The answer is two-fold. America's Constitution does not require the electors to vote for the majority candidate - but - they usually do.

We learn, from the U.S. National Archives, that throughout America's history, Electoral-College members have voted the way the people voted 99% of the time:

There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires Electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states. Some states, however, require Electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote. These pledges fall into two categories—Electors bound by state law and those bound by pledges to political parties.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Constitution does not require that Electors be completely free to act as they choose and therefore, political parties may extract pledges from electors to vote for the parties' nominees. Some state laws provide that so-called "faithless Electors" may be subject to fines or may be disqualified for casting an invalid vote and be replaced by a substitute elector.

The Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on the question of whether pledges and penalties for failure to vote as pledged may be enforced under the Constitution. No Elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged.

Today, it is rare for Electors to disregard the popular vote by casting their electoral vote for someone other than their party's candidate. Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party. Throughout our history as a nation, more than 99 percent of Electors have voted as pledged. (See "Are There Restrictions on Who the Electors Can Vote For?"—a subsection of "What Is the Electoral College?")

Many people think that the Electoral College is "flawed" and ought to be abandoned. They ask:  If this country is a democracy, after all, why not let the popular vote decide national elections? (That question itself is flawed, however, because America is a representative republic, not a pure democracy—and there's a big difference beween the two forms of government.)

Others argue that the Electoral College system has worked pretty well, for hundreds of years, so why make changes now? (The corollary, to that approach, is the benefit of allowing a balance of voting throughout the country—in favor of all the individual states—instead of allowing the "big population centers" to control the outcome—in favor of the largest American cities.) What do you think? Should America keep the Electoral College or should the country abandon it? If you were running for President, would you be better-off with the Electoral College or without it?

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5139stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 04, 2016

Updated Last Revision: Jan 05, 2017


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