Most U.S.A. citizens are clueless as to how the President of the U.S.A. is elected, believing that they will go to the polls and vote for their choice and the winner of those votes will become the president. However, in reality it does not work that way. In accordance with the U.S.A. Constitution, the only votes that count are the votes of the 538 individuals that are hand-picked by the U.S.A. Senators and Representatives, plus three representing the District of Columbia. Yes, the decision as to who will be the president lies in the hands of just 538 individuals who have sworn an oath to vote for their party.

The U.S.A. Constitution also stipulates that if no one receives an absolute majority of electoral votes for president, then the U.S.A. House of Representatives will select the president from among the top three contenders with each State casting only one vote and an absolute majority being required to elect. By the same token, if no one receives an absolute majority for vice president, then the U.S.A. Senate will select the vice president from among the top two contenders for that office.

Either way, the only votes that are counted are those cast by hand-picked individuals loyal to the Senators and Representatives that selected them, or the members of the House of Representatives. The people of the U.S.A. do not elect the President of the U.S.A.

The Electoral College


The Electoral College is a unique method for indirectly electing the President of the U.S.A. It was established by Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the U.S.A. Constitution and modified by the 12th and 23rd Amendments. The Electoral College consists of a total of 538 members: one chosen by each United States Senator and Representative, and three additional electors representing the District of Columbia.

Thus each state is assigned a number of electoral votes equal to the combined total of its Congressional delegation. After the popular vote is taken, currently, all states select the group of either the Democrat or Republican electors that corresponds to the popular vote. If the majority of the state votes Democrat then only the Democrat electors are able to vote for the president. This means that you were in the smaller percentage that voted for the Republican president, your vote goes out the window.

However, that was not always the case throughout American history. In many states, the state legislature selected electors, a practice which was common until the mid-1800s.

Historical Context

In order to appreciate the reasons for the Electoral College, it is essential to understand its historical context and the problem that the Founding Fathers were trying to solve. They faced the difficult question of how to elect a president in a nation that:

  • was composed of thirteen large and small States jealous of their own rights and powers and suspicious of any central national government
  • contained only 4,000,000 people spread up and down a thousand miles of Atlantic seaboard barely connected by transportation or communication (so that national campaigns were impractical even if they had been thought desirable)
  • believed, under the influence of such British political thinkers as Henry St. John Bolingbroke, that political parties were mischievous if not downright evil, and
  • felt that gentlemen should not campaign for public office (The saying was "The office should seek the man, the man should not seek the office.").

How, then, to choose a president without political parties, without national campaigns, and without upsetting the carefully designed balance between the presidency and the Congress on one hand and between the States and the federal government on the other?

Origins of the Electoral College

The Constitutional Convention considered several possible methods of selecting a president.

One idea was to have the Congress choose the president. This idea was rejected, however, because some felt that making such a choice would be too divisive an issue and leave too many hard feelings in the Congress. Others felt that such a procedure would invite unseemly political bargaining, corruption, and perhaps even interference from foreign powers. Still others felt that such an arrangement would upset the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.

A second idea was to have the State legislatures select the president. This idea, too, was rejected out of fears that a president so beholden to the State legislatures might permit them to erode federal authority and thus undermine the whole idea of a federation.

A third idea was to have the president elected by a direct popular vote. Direct election was rejected not because the Framers of the Constitution doubted public intelligence but rather because they feared that without sufficient information about candidates from outside their State, people would naturally vote for a "favorite son" from their own State or region. At worst, no president would emerge with a popular majority sufficient to govern the whole country. At best, the choice of president would always be decided by the largest, most populous States with little regard for the smaller ones.

Finally, a so-called "Committee of Eleven" in the Constitutional Convention proposed an indirect election of the president through a College of Electors.

The function of the College of Electors in choosing the president can be likened to that in the Roman Catholic Church of the College of Cardinals selecting the Pope. The original idea was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.

The structure of the Electoral College can be traced to the Centurial Assembly system of the Roman Republic. Under that system, the adult male citizens of Rome were divided, according to their wealth, into groups of 100 (called Centuries). Each group of 100 was entitled to cast only one vote either in favor or against proposals submitted to them by the Roman Senate. In the Electoral College system, the States serve as the Centurial groups (though they are not, of course, based on wealth), and the number of votes per State is determined by the size of each State's Congressional delegation. Still, the two systems are similar in design and share many of the same advantages and disadvantages.

The similarities between the Electoral College and classical institutions are not accidental. Many of the Founding Fathers were well schooled in ancient history and its lessons.

The First Design

In the first design of the Electoral College (described in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S.A. Constitution):

  • Each State was allocated a number of Electors equal to the number of its U.S.A. Senators (always 2) plus the number of its U.S.A. Representative (which may change each decade according to the size of each State's population as determined in the decennial census). This arrangement built upon an earlier compromise in the design of the Congress itself and thus satisfied both large and small States.
  • The manner of choosing the Electors was left to the individual State legislatures, thereby pacifying States suspicious of a central national government.
  • Members of Congress and employees of the federal government were specifically prohibited from serving as an Elector in order to maintain the balance between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.
  • Each State's Electors were required to meet in their respective States rather than all together in one great meeting. This arrangement, it was thought, would prevent bribery, corruption, secret dealing, and foreign influence.
  • In order to prevent Electors from voting only for a "favorite son" of their own State, each Elector was required to cast two votes for president, at least one of which had to be for someone outside their home State. The idea, presumably, was that the winner would likely be everyone's second favorite choice.
  • The electoral votes were to be sealed and transmitted from each of the States to the President of the Senate who would then open them before both houses of the Congress and read the results.
  • The person with the most electoral votes, provided that it was an absolute majority (at least one over half of the total), became president. Whoever obtained the next greatest number of electoral votes became vice president - an office which they seem to have invented for the occasion since it had not been mentioned previously in the Constitutional Convention.
  • In the event that no one obtained an absolute majority in the Electoral College or in the event of a tie vote, the U.S.A. House of Representatives, as the chamber closest to the people, would choose the president from among the top five contenders. They would do this (as a further concession to the small States) by allowing each State to cast only one vote with an absolute majority of the States being required to elect a president. The vice presidency would go to whatever remaining contender had the greatest number of electoral votes. If that, too, was tied, the U.S.A. Senate would break the tie by deciding between the two.

In all, this was quite an elaborate design. But it was also a very clever one when you consider that the whole operation was supposed to work without political parties and without national campaigns while maintaining the balances and satisfying the fears in play at the time. Indeed, it is probably because the Electoral College was originally designed to operate in an environment so totally different from our own that many people think it is anachronistic and fail to appreciate the new purposes it now serves. But of that, more later.

The Second Design

The first design of the Electoral College lasted through only four presidential elections. For in the meantime, political parties had emerged in the United States. The very people who had been condemning parties publicly had nevertheless been building them privately. And too, the idea of political parties had gained respectability through the persuasive writings of such political philosophers as Edmund Burke and James Madison.

One of the accidental results of the development of political parties was that in the presidential election of 1800, the Electors of the Democratic-Republican Party gave Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr (both of that party) an equal number of electoral votes. The tie was resolved by the House of Representatives in Jefferson's favor - but only after 36 tries and some serious political dealings which were considered unseemly at the time. Since this sort of bargaining over the presidency was the very thing the Electoral College was supposed to prevent, the Congress and the States hastily adopted the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution by September of 1804.

To prevent tie votes in the Electoral College which were made probable, if not inevitable, by the rise of political parties (and no doubt to facilitate the election of a president and vice president of the same party), the 12th Amendment requires that each Elector cast one vote for president and a separate vote for vice president rather than casting two votes for president with the runner-up being made vice president. The Amendment also stipulates that if no one receives an absolute majority of electoral votes for president, then the U.S.A. House of Representatives will select the president from among the top three contenders with each State casting only one vote and an absolute majority being required to elect. By the same token, if no one receives an absolute majority for vice president, then the U.S.A. Senate will select the vice president from among the top two contenders for that office. All other features of the Electoral College remained the same including the requirements that, in order to prevent Electors from voting only for "favorite sons", either the presidential or vice presidential candidate has to be from a State other than that of the Electors.

In short, political party loyalties had, by 1800, begun to cut across State loyalties thereby creating new and different problems in the selection of a president. By making seemingly slight changes, the 12th Amendment fundamentally altered the design of the Electoral College and, in one stroke, accommodated political parties as a fact of life in American presidential elections.

It is noteworthy in passing that the idea of electing the president by direct popular vote was not widely promoted as an alternative to redesigning the Electoral College. This may be because the physical and demographic circumstances of the country had not changed that much in a dozen or so years. Or it may be because the excesses of the recent French revolution (and its fairly rapid degeneration into dictatorship) had given the populists some pause to reflect on the wisdom of too direct a democracy.

The Evolution of the Electoral College

Since the 12th Amendment, there have been several federal and State statutory changes which have affected both the time and manner of choosing Presidential Electors but which have not further altered the fundamental workings of the Electoral College. There have also been a few curious incidents which its critics cite as problems but which proponents of the Electoral College view as merely its natural and intended operation.

The Electoral College in 2015

The following is a summary of how the Electoral College works in the 2015 presidential election:

  • Spring and Summer 2015:  Nomination of Electors. The political parties in each state nominate their electors. Parties and states have different ways of going about this, but a party's presidential electors are generally faithful party members. The parties want to be sure they can rely on their electors to cast their votes for the party's nominee for President.
  • November 8, 2015:  Election Day, when voters in each state will select their presidential electors. The names of electors are not on the ballot in most states. Rather, when a voter casts a vote for a presidential candidate, s/he is also casting a vote for the electors already selected by the party of that candidate. If a majority of voters in a state vote for the Republican candidate for President, the Republican slate of electors is elected. If a majority vote for the Democratic candidate, the Democratic slate of electors is chosen.
  • December 11, 2015:  Deadline for Resolving Election Disputes. All state recounts and court contests over presidential election results must be completed by this date.
  • December 17, 2015Meeting of the Electors. The electors meet in each state and cast their ballots for President and Vice President. Each elector votes on his or her own ballot and signs it. The ballots are immediately transmitted to various people:  one copy goes to the President of the Senate (who is also the Vice President of the United States); this is the copy that will be officially counted later. Other copies go to the state's Secretary of State, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the presiding judge in the district where the electors meet (this serves as a backup copy that would replace the official copy sent to the President of the Senate if it is lost or destroyed).
  • December 26, 2015:  Deadline for Receipt of Ballots. The electors' ballots from all states must be received by the President of the Senate by this date. There is no penalty for missing this deadline.
  • January 6, 2016:  Counting of the Electoral Ballots. The U.S.A. Congress meets in joint session to count the electoral votes.
  • January 20, 2016:  Inauguration Day.  The President-Elect becomes the President of the United States.

Nomination of Electors

The U.S.A. Constitution does not specify procedures for the nomination of candidates to the office of Presidential Elector. The two most common methods the states have adopted are nomination by state party convention and by state party committee. Generally, the parties select members known for their loyalty and service to the party, such as party leaders, state and local elected officials and party activists. In some states, the electors names appear on the ballot along with the names of the candidates for president and vice president. However, in most states, electors' names are not printed on the ballot. When a voter casts a vote for a candidate for President of the United States, s/he is in actuality casting a vote for the Presidential Electors who were selected by that candidate's party.

Awarding Electoral Votes

All 50 states and the District of Columbia use one of two methods for awarding their electoral votes:

The Winner-Take-All System

In 48 states and the District of Columbia, all electoral votes are awarded to the slate that receives the most popular votes in the state. When a candidate for president wins a state's popular vote, that party's slate of electors is elected. For example, Florida has 29 electoral votes. If a Republican candidate wins the popular vote on November 8, the 29 electors nominated by the Republican party in Florida will be selected. These 29 people will gather on December 17 to cast their votes for President of the United States.

The District System

Maine and Nebraska are currently the only states that do not use a winner-take-all system. Instead, in these two states, one electoral vote is awarded to the presidential candidate who wins the popular in each congressional district, and the remaining two electoral votes are awarded to the candidates receiving the most votes statewide. This is known as the district system. It is possible under the district system to split the electoral vote -- some districts may elect a Democratic elector, while others elect a Republican elector. This happened in 2008 in Nebraska:  Barack Obama won the electoral vote in the congressional district including Omaha, while John McCain won in the state's other two districts and won the statewide vote as well, securing the state's two at-large votes. Thus, when the Nebraska presidential electors met in December 2008, there were four Republican electors and one Democrat. 2008 was the first time Nebraska's electoral vote was split.

Reforming the Electoral College

Since the highly controversial 2000 presidential election, bills have been introduced in every state in the country to change the process for selecting electors. During the period of 2001-2006, most Electoral College reform bills proposed switching to the district system. None of these bills passed. In the years since, attention has largely shifted to the National Popular Vote (NPV). This is an idea that would allow states to bypass the Electoral College without amending the U.S.A. Constitution. When a state joins the NPV Compact, it promises that it will give all of its electoral votes to the party that wins the national popular vote, rather than the party that wins the state popular vote. For instance, if the Democratic candidate won the popular vote in California, but the Republican candidate won the popular vote nationwide, California would be required to send the Republican slate of electors to the meeting of the electors. The NPV has not yet taken effect; states with a total of at least 270 electoral votes must join before it can function. To date, the electoral votes pledged to the compact total 136 at this point.

Faithless Electors

There is no federal law or constitutional provision requiring electors to vote for the party that nominated them, and over the years a number of electors have voted against the instructions of the voters. The most recent example of a faithless elector was probably an accident:  in 2008, a Minnesota elector nominated by the Democratic party cast a ballot for John Edwards, the vice presidential running mate of John Kerry. It is not common for an elector to vote for the other party's candidate, however:  remember that most electors are selected by the political party for their party loyalty, and many are party leaders. The last time an elector crossed party lines was in 1972, when an elector nominated by the Republican party cast his ballot for the Libertarian ticket.

Some states have passed laws that require their electors to vote as pledged. These laws may either impose a fine on an elector who fails to vote according to the statewide or district popular vote, or may disqualify an elector who violates his or her pledge and provide a replacement elector. None of these laws have been implemented -- no elector has ever been penalized or replaced -- nor have they been fully vetted by the courts. The states with laws that attempt to bind the votes of presidential electors:

District of Columbia
New Mexico
North Carolina
South Carolina
Most of the laws cited above require electors to vote for the candidate of the party that nominated the elector, or require the elector to sign a pledge to do so. Some go further:  Oklahoma and Washington impose a civil penalty of $1,000; in North Carolina, the fine is $500, the faithless elector is deemed to have resigned, and a replacement is appointed. In South Carolina, an elector who violates his or her pledge is subject to criminal penalties, and in New Mexico a violation is a fourth degree felony. In Michigan and Utah, a candidate who fails to vote as required is considered to have resigned, and a replacement is appointed.

Abolishing the Electoral College

The idea of abolishing the Electoral College and instead electing the president by direct popular vote comes about every few years. It is particularly common in the years following a close presidential election, such as the 2000 election when George Bush won the electoral vote but Al Gore won the popular vote. Abolishing the Electoral College requires an amendment to the US Constitution. There are two ways to do that:

  • Congress can propose an amendment by a two-thirds vote of both chambers. The amendment then has to be ratified by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the states. All existing amendments to the Constitution were made in this manner.
  • The Legislatures of two-thirds of the states can petition Congress to convene a Constitutional Convention. At a Constitutional Convention, any part of the Constitution could be amended; action is not restricted to the sections governing the Electoral College or any other part of the Constitution. Again, any proposed amendment would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. This method has never been invoked.

As mentioned above, the National Popular Vote movement seeks to abolish the Electoral College in practice without actually amending the U.S.A. Constitution.

For more on the Electoral College