Presidential Electoral College

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The United States Electoral College is the electoral college which chooses the President and Vice President of the United States at the conclusion of each Presidential election. The Electoral College was established by Article Two, Section One of the U.S. Constitution, and meets every four years with electors from each state. The electoral process was modified in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment, and again in 1961 with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment.

How it works

Election for President of the United States and Vice President of the United States is indirect, for which voting takes place every four years on Election Day. Although ballots typically list the names of the presidential candidates, voters within the 50 states and the District of Columbia actually choose electors when they vote for President and Vice President. These electors in turn cast the official votes for those two offices.

In most states and in D.C., the plurality winner of the popular vote for President within that state receives all of the state's electors, while all other candidates receive none. Only in Maine and Nebraska does the election follow a model more closely based on Congressional Elections: For each congressional district in those two states, the plurality winner of that district receives one district elector ("Representative-like" elector, so to speak), while the two at-large electors ("Senator-like" electors) are given to the plurality winner of the whole state. This method has been used in Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996, though neither has ever split its electoral votes.

Each state's electors meet in their respective state capitals in December, 41 days following the election, at which time they cast their electoral votes. Thus the electoral college never meets as one body. The electoral votes are then sealed and sent to the President of the Senate (i.e. the sitting Vice President of the United States), who retains them until the new Congress convenes in January. At that time, the votes are opened and counted in the presence of both houses of Congress. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes for President becomes President, and the candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes for Vice President becomes Vice President.

If no candidate receives an absolute electoral majority for President, then the new House of Representatives is required to go into session immediately to vote for President. In this case, the top three electoral vote getters for President are the candidates for the House of Representatives to select from, and the House votes en-bloc by state for this purpose (that is, one vote per state, which is determined by the majority decision of the delegation from that state; if a state delegation is evenly split that state is considered as abstaining). This vote would be repeated if necessary until one candidate receives the votes of more than half the state delegations - at least 26 state votes, given the current number, 50, of states in the union.

If no candidate receives an absolute majority of electoral votes for Vice President, then the United States Senate must do the same, with the top two vote getters for that office as candidates. The Senate votes in the normal manner in this case, not by States. It is unclear if the sitting Vice President would be entitled to cast his usual tie-breaking vote if the Senate should be evenly split on the matter.

If the House of Representatives has not chosen a winner in time for the inauguration (noon on January 20), then the Constitution of the United States specifies that the new Vice President becomes Acting President until the House selects a President. If the winner of the Vice Presidential election is not known by then either, then under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Speaker of the House of Representatives would become Acting President until the House selects a President or the Senate selects a Vice President.

It is unclear what would happen if a President has been selected but the Senate remains deadlocked on a Vice President past Inauguration Day. On the one hand, the Twelfth Amendment specifies that the Senate should choose the Vice President, and it does not admit of a time limit on the selection process. On the other hand, the Twenty-Third Amendment allows the President to nominate a Vice President if a vacancy should occur.

As of 2005, the House of Representatives has elected the President on two occasions, in 1801 and in 1825. The Senate has chosen the Vice President once, in 1837.

Allotting electors to the states

The number of electors assigned to each state is equal to the total number of Senators (always 2) and Representatives that the state has in Congress. No federal officer or employee, including Senators and Representatives, may serve as an elector, though electors may be elected state officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with a Presidential candidate. With the adoption of the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1961, the District of Columbia is treated as a state for purposes of electoral votes, but can in no event choose more electors than the least populous state (however that latter clause does not currently make any difference; even if it did not exist, there would not be enough population in the District by a wide margin to give it any more than 3 electors).

There are currently 538 electoral votes available in each presidential election (100 Senators + 435 Representatives + 3 votes for D.C. = 538 electoral votes). Therefore, candidates must receive a majority of 270 electoral votes to become President and Vice President. In theory even in a pure two-party race, a candidate could win the election by receiving only 23% of all popular votes, if these were distributed in an ideal way (for him/her) - i.e. if he won enough small states by the narrowest possible margin and got no votes at all in the larger states. The fact that there is an even number of electoral votes available since the passing of the 23rd Amendment makes a 269/269 tie conceivable, although none has occurred yet. In that case the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives even though only two candidates received any electoral votes.

In most states, the names of the electors do not appear on the ballot at all; instead, a notation on the ballot indicates that voters are selecting the "electors for" followed by the names of the candidates for President and for Vice President. All but two states (Maine and Nebraska) use a winner-take-all system. The candidate with a plurality of votes gains all of the state's electors. The two exceptions allot the electors to areas within the state. In many states, the electors are legally free to cast their votes for anyone they choose, although in some states to vote for someone other than their pledged candidate is a misdemeanor, in others a felony, and in a few it is merely illegal without penalty.

In practice, however, electors very rarely vote for a candidate they are not pledged to (as they are chosen by the political parties specifically for voting for that candidate), except as a form of protest vote. Individuals choosing to do this are often referred to as "faithless electors" about which, more below. It is uncommon to know in advance that an elector may be inclined to vote in such a fashion, and such deviations usually come as a surprise. Of course, if an Electoral College tie were looming on the horizon after Election Day, more electors might see a reason to switch sides, simply to avoid the election being thrown into the House of Representatives.


Scholars continue to debate the reasons for the adoption of the Electoral College. Some believe it was created to protect small states. Others believe that the Founding Fathers intended to create a system of indirect election whereby the electors would come to a carefully considered decision to nominate a selection of good candidates and then the House of Representatives would again make a careful consideration of the names presented. Others still believe the system of electing the President was given little thought beyond a desire to have George Washington as the first President, pointing in particular to the extremely casual way in which the Vice President was selected, and that Congress was intended to be the most important part of the Federal government.

Still others hold that it was devised as a compromise between the election of a President by the states and by the Congress. Initially the electors were selected by the state legislatures, and it was not until later that states started holding a popular poll for the presidential elections to determine how they would cast their votes. Yet another theory contends that the Framers strongly opposed the development of political parties, as evidenced by the total absence of any reference to parties in the Constitution, and were aware of the difficulties in mass communication, and were attempting to devise a system that would function well with neither cheap, instantaneous, nationwide communication nor a strong political party system.

The Electoral College may have been implemented to negotiate compromises in cases of a split vote where each state was pushing its own native son. The U.S. presidential primary and the emergence of a two-party system has largely rendered this historical. One lasting theory is that the Electoral College helps to soften the effect of votes from densely populated centers (major U.S. cities and the District of Columbia) which may steer away from the concerns of the rest of the country. Others have noted that the Electoral College enabled the Founding Fathers to deftly incorporate the Connecticut Compromise and three-fifths compromise into the system of choosing the President and Vice President, thereby sparing the convention further acrimony over the issue of state representation.

Regardless of why the system was chosen, the term "electoral college" is not used in the U.S. Constitution, and it wasn't until the early 1800s that it 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."

Section 1, Article II of the Constitution 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: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector." It then goes on to describe how the electors vote for President.

Originally, each elector voted for two persons, with no designation for President or Vice President. The person receiving the greatest number of votes (provided that such a number was a majority of electors) would be President, while the individual who was in second place became Vice President (and did not need the backing of the majority of electors; in theory the Vice President could have been elected with the support of as few as two electors if every other elector either cast the sole vote for a candidate, voted for a virtually unanimous choice for President or did not cast their second vote). If no one had received a majority of votes, then the House of Representatives would choose between the five highest vote-getters, with each state casting one vote. In such a case, the person who received the highest number of votes but was not chosen President would become Vice President. If there was ever a tie for second, then the Senate would choose the Vice President.

Electoral votes

There are a total of 538 electoral votes. Electoral votes for each state are determined decennially by the United States Census (see also United States Congressional Apportionment). For each state the number is two more than the number of Representatives that the state has in Congress. Thus the number of electoral votes per state is two plus a number proportional to the population, determined by the Method of Equal Proportions. The 23rd Amendment gives the District of Columbia the number of electoral votes that it would receive if it were a state, or the smallest number of electoral votes of any state, whichever is smaller. The electoral vote distribution for the 2004 and 2008 elections is as follows.


Alabama - 9
Alaska - 3
Arizona - 10
Arkansas - 6
California - 55
Colorado - 9
Connecticut - 7
D.C. - 3
Delaware - 3
Florida - 27
Georgia - 15
Hawaii - 4
Idaho - 4
Illinois - 21
Indiana - 11
Iowa - 7
Kansas - 6
Kentucky - 8
Louisiana - 9
Maine - 4
Maryland - 10
Massachusetts - 12
Michigan - 17
Minnesota - 10
Mississippi - 6
Missouri - 11
Montana - 3
Nebraska - 5
Nevada - 5
New Hampshire - 4
New Jersey - 15
New Mexico - 5
New York - 31
North Carolina - 15
North Dakota - 3
Ohio - 20
Oklahoma - 7
Oregon - 7
Pennsylvania - 21
Rhode Island - 4
South Carolina - 8
South Dakota - 3
Tennessee - 11
Texas - 34
Utah - 5
Vermont - 3
Virginia - 13
Washington - 11
West Virginia - 5
Wisconsin - 10
Wyoming - 3