The Electoral College: How does it work?

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College, administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is not a place, it is a process that began as part of the original design of the U.S. Constitution. The Electoral College was established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by popular vote. The people of the United States vote for the electors who then vote for the President. Read more about how the terms “Elector” and “Electoral College” came into usage.

How Many Votes do States Get?

Each State is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. Senators (always 2) plus the number of its U.S. Representatives. The number of electors for a State is based on the number of members in the House of Representatives who represent the State, plus two for the State’s Senators. A State’s Congressional delegation is determined by the State’s population.

The number of people in each State is determined by the Federal census, which is taken every ten years and includes a count of every State’s population.

Number of electoral votes needed to win

270. In the early days of the United States, this number periodically increase as the number of states and population grew (e.g. George Washington won his first election in 1789 with a unanimous 69 electoral votes). The number of electoral college members is set by the number of US House Representatives (set at 435 seats since 1911), the number of US Senators (2 per state = 100), plus 3 votes for Washington DC. The total size of the electoral college is thus 538. To achieve victory in the presidential election, a candidate must win half of the electoral college (269) plus one vote, else the election is decided by the incoming House of Representatives. In this case, each state is allotted one vote, and the House must then choose the president among the top three candidates recipients of electoral votes

Who Selects the Electors?

The process for selecting electors varies throughout the United States. Generally, the political parties nominate electors at their State party conventions or by a vote of the party’s central committee in each State.

Electors are often selected to recognize their service and dedication to their political party. They may be State-elected officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with the Presidential candidate.

Then the voters in each State choose the electors on the day of the general election. The electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the candidates running for President, depending on the procedure in each State.

Frequently Asked Questions


How did the terms “Elector” and “Electoral College” come into usage?

The term “electoral college” does not appear in the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution and the 12th Amendment refer to “electors,” but not to the “electoral college.” In the Federalist Papers (No. 68), Alexander Hamilton refers to the process of selecting the Executive, and refers to “the people of each State (who) shall choose a number of persons as electors,” but he does not use the term “electoral college.”

The founders appropriated the concept of electors from the Holy Roman Empire (962 – 1806). An elector was one of a number of princes of the various German states within the Holy Roman Empire who had a right to participate in the election of the German king (who generally was crowned as emperor). The term “college” (from the Latin collegium), refers to a body of persons that act as a unit, as in the college of cardinals who advise the Pope and vote in papal elections. In the early 1800’s, the term “electoral college” came into general usage as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for President and Vice President. It was first written into Federal law in 1845, and today the term appears in 3 U.S.C. section 4, in the section heading and in the text as “college of electors.”


Who selects the Electors?

The process for selecting electors varies throughout the United States. Generally, the political parties nominate electors at their State party conventions or by a vote of the party’s central committee in each State. Electors are often selected to recognize their service and dedication to their political party. They may be State elected officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with the Presidential candidate. Then the voters in each State choose the electors on the day of the general election. The electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the candidates running for President, depending on the procedure in each State.


What are the qualifications to be an elector?

The U.S. Constitution contains very few provisions relating to the qualifications of electors. Article II, section 1, clause 2 provides that no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector. As a historical matter, the 14th Amendment provides that State officials who have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies are disqualified from serving as electors. This prohibition relates to the post-Civil War era.

3 responses

  1. susan

    The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. In 2004 two-thirds of the visits and money were focused in just six states; 88% on 9 states, and 99% of the money went to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people were merely spectators to the presidential election. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule under which all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.

    In the past six decades, there have been six presidential elections in which a shift of a relatively small number of votes in one or two states would have elected (and, of course, in 2000, did elect) a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 21 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and both houses in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes — 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

    October 2, 2008 at 5:42 pm

  2. jason p

    THE ELECTION DAY WAS NOVEMBER 10/4/08 BARACK OBAMA WAS HELPING POOR PEOPLE THEN HE VOTING NEW YORK,MARYLAND,NEW JERSEY,CONNETICUT,PENNSYLVANIA AND RHODE ISLAND TO VOTING FOR OBAMA

    November 6, 2008 at 11:58 am

  3. NELSON

    THE ELECTION DAY WAS NOVEMBER 10/4/08 BARACK OBAMA WAS HELPING POOR PEOPLE THEN HE VOTING NEW YORK,MARYLAND,NEW JERSEY,CONNETICUT,PENNSYLVANIA AND RHODE ISLAND TO VOTING FOR OBAMA

    November 6, 2008 at 11:58 am

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