The Electoral College System, Decoded

The Electoral College falls into a nebulous area of public knowledge – everyone knows that it exists, but many are hard-pressed to give a description of how it works. In most cases, the question yields a few stammered sentences and ends with a sheepish admission of uncertainty. Despite the general confusion surrounding it and its purpose, the Electoral College system is easy enough to appreciate with a little reading. Below, I’ve included a few of the most commonly asked questions about the mechanics of the system – but for more detailed information, I highly recommend browsing the research offerings on the National Archives and Records Administration’s website.


What is the Electoral College?

The electoral college is the apparatus by which the president of the United States is elected. When the college convenes, its 538 electors, or members, vote on behalf of their constituents to determine which of the candidates will become president.


How does it work?

Chosen electors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia cast their vote for president on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December during a presidential election year. The College does not physically convene in the same space; instead, electors gather in their state capitals to cast their votes. Then, their ballot choices are sent to the president of the Senate for counting. Once the votes are tallied, the Senate president is responsible for announcing the election verdict before the gathered House and Senate.


Why do we need it?

The electoral college solves a number of problems posed by a purely popular vote.


Firstly, it prevents majority interests from tyrannizing those of the minority during an election since the electors are trusted to ensure candidates will fairly represent national interests and not special interests that may malign their underrepresented fellow citizens.


Secondly, the electoral college encourages coalition-building. Think of it this way: Significantly more people (i.e., voters) live in cities than rural communities; thus, candidates focused solely on winning the popular vote might choose to dedicate their time to prioritize urban interests over rural ones. By removing the political incentive to hold some communities above others, the electoral college system forces candidates to build effective coalitions of voters and pay equal attention to the needs of all constituencies.


Additionally, the college mitigates the impact of voter fraud by making it harder for would-be manipulators to predict which precincts to target for malicious activities that can  skew electoral results. In a purely democratic system, any vote stolen – regardless of region or place of origin – could potentially throw the outcome of an election.


How are states’ electoral votes distributed?

Excepting Maine and Nebraska, the states and the District of Columbia submit their electoral votes in favor of the candidate who won the most votes within their jurisdiction.


What happens if the electoral college doesn’t have a clear winner?

Candidates must have at least 270 votes – a clear majority – to win the election via the electoral college system. If neither candidate manages to gather the required number of votes, the decision is passed over to the House of Representative. There, each state is allotted a single vote regardless of its size and number of representatives, and the presidency goes to whichever candidate receives the most votes. However, the House is not responsible for selecting a vice president – that task remains with the Senate. Given this, an election decided within the House could potentially leave the new administration with a president and vice president from differing parties.   


Who can be an elector?

While the details of the system used to choosing electors vary from state to state, the general process remains the same. Selecting electors begins at state party conventions, where potential electors are chosen from a pool of elected officials, party leaders, and political affiliates of the party’s presidential candidate. Once voting closes within the state, the prospectives affiliated with the winning candidate begin their roles as the state’s Electors.


If I’m technically voting for an elector, why are the candidates’ names on my ballot?

When citizens cast their votes for a presidential candidate, they aren’t voting for the candidate per se, but rather for the slated electors expected to vote for that candidate. While electors can technically vote for whoever they like, they are trusted to vote for a certain person before casting their votes – moreover, 29 states have laws specifically forbidding electors from voting for a candidate other than the one they pledged to select. For that reason, most ballots simply list the names of the candidates the electors have sworn to vote for, rather than the names of the electors themselves.


If the electoral college technically decides the presidency, does my vote matter?

YES! The Electoral College may determine the outcome of the presidential election, but ordinary voters have a tremendous collective influence on its decision. Voters in every state need to turn out on election day to select electors who will represent their political interests to the College.


Your voice matters. Back your beliefs and support your political candidates by heading to the polls on election days!