How Does the Electoral College Work?
By FindLaw Staff | Legally reviewed by Bridget Molitor, J.D. | Last reviewed September 17, 2021
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Once every four years, eligible citizens vote to elect their candidate to be the next president of the United States. Despite what most people think, citizens do not vote for their chosen presidential candidate. Instead, they vote for the “slate of electors” who pledge to cast their votes on behalf of the citizens in the electoral college.
What Exactly Is the Electoral College?
The Constitution, under Article II, Section 1, establishes the electoral college process. It's a process where 538 electors meet and cast their ballots to elect the president and vice president of the United States.
In every state, political parties choose electors for each candidate running for the presidency. This usually happens at their respective state conventions. On Election Day, the voters will vote for the electors. In most states, the electors will cast their vote for the candidate with the majority votes.
After the election concludes, the state governor prepares a "certificate of ascertainment" that has the list of the electors. The certificate also officially declares the candidate as the winner in that state.
The following December, the electors meet to cast their ballot for the president and vice president. The current vice president (senate president) receives these votes and, on January 6th, reads them to the House of Representatives and the Senate. The candidate with the majority of the votes is sworn in as president on January 20th.
How Did the Electoral College Come About?
The electoral college is a concept created by the framers of the Constitution at the Philadelphia convention in 1787. The framers saw it as a compromise between allowing highly populated areas to have excessive voting powers and letting Congress elect the president.
How Are the Electors Selected?
It's the responsibility of the state legislature to select electors. But the specifics vary from state to state. Often, political parties choose the electors for their party. Sometimes, the electors themselves might campaign to get the spot. The Constitution also has limitations on who can serve as an elector.
How Are the Electoral Votes Distributed Among States?
The Constitution requires each state to have electors equal to its congressional representation. This means each state gets votes equal to the number of its congressional delegates and senators. The number of electors a state receives depends on its population. California, for example, has 55 electoral votes, while Alaska only has three.
Accordingly, there are 538 electors, 535 congressional districts, and three representing the District of Colombia as outlined in the 23rd amendment. In the end, the presidential candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to become the president elect.
Is the Electoral Process the Same in All States?
Maine and Nebraska follow a different approach to how they apportion electoral votes. These two states give electoral votes by congressional district. They do, however, reserve two additional votes to the winner. The remaining 48 states follow a "winner-takes-all "approach where they allocate all the electoral votes to the winner regardless of how close the votes were.
Does the Electoral College Work?
In the majority of the presidential elections, the electoral college and the popular votes have been in alignment. However, there were some instances where the president lost the popular vote and won the electoral college. The most recent ones were George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016.
What Happens If Both Contenders Get the Same Number of Electors?
An electoral college tie is very rare. But, there is a possibility of a tie if both candidates each get 269 votes. If that happens, It requires a contingent presidential election and the president will be chosen by a simple majority in the House of Representatives as outlined under the 12th amendment.
What Are Faithless Electors?
When electors vote contrary to the popular vote, they are called "faithless electors." In 2016, there were 10 faithless electors in the General Election, of 538 total electors.
Surprisingly, there is no constitutional provision prohibiting electors from being faithless electors. But 32 states have faithless elector laws, including 15 that penalize electors for voting against their pledge or remove them or their vote. In Washington, for instance, there is a $1000 fine for being a faithless elector.
In the July 2020 decision, Chiafalo v. Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that laws like Washingon State's do not violate the Constitution, and went so far as to say requiring electors to vote alongside the popular vote "accords with the Constitution." Electors, the Court held, "are not free agents."
The National Association of Secretaries of State's summary on the state laws about presidential electors can be a useful resource to learn about the procedures for selecting electors and the fines associated with faithless electors.
Additional Resources to Learn More
- What Is the Electoral College?
- Annotation 2 - Article II of the Constitution
- Key Question for the Presidential Candidates: Would They Support Replacing the Electoral College with a National Popular Vote System?
- Election Law, Government Ethics & Lobbying
Was Your Right to Vote Violated?
The right to vote is a fundamental right and core to the democratic process. If your right to vote has been violated, you may want to speak to an election law attorney. An attorney can help you understand your rights and take steps to protect them.