How the Electoral College Works

History of the Electoral College
Each state's number of electors for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 elections.
Each state's number of electors for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 elections.

In 1787, two things forever changed the face of American politics: First, a group of national leaders drafted the U.S. Constitution, and second, they decided the average citizen wasn't erudite enough to elect a president without the bridge of a system known as the Electoral College.

The Electoral College was created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution as a compromise for the presidential election process. At the time, some politicians believed a purely popular election was too reckless and would give too much voting power to highly populated areas in which people were familiar with a presidential candidate. Others objected to the possibility of letting Congress select the president, as some suggested. The answer? An Electoral College system that allowed voters to vote for electors, who would then cast their votes for candidates, a system described in Article II, section 1 of the Constitution [source: Weingast].

The concept worked as expected until the 1800 election, when presidential hopefuls Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson each received the same amount of electoral votes. By then, political parties had become powerful influencers. Leaders of each party handpicked electors who, naturally, voted for their electing party's candidates. The tie was broken by the House of Representatives, but resulted in the Constitution's 12th Amendment, which spelled out the electoral voting process in more detail [source: Cornell University Law School].

Today, each state has a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. senators (two in each state) plus the number of its U.S. representatives, which varies according to the state's population. For example, Kansas has two senators and four U.S. representatives for a total of six electoral votes.

Overall, the Electoral College includes 538 electors, 535 for the total number of congressional members, and three who represent Washington, D.C., as allowed by the 23rd Amendment. In the 2012 presidential election, highly populated California had the most sway with 55 electoral votes; other less populated states, such as Montana, had as few as three electoral votes [source: CNN].

On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the electors meet in their respective state capitals to officially cast their votes for president and vice president. These votes are then sealed and sent to the president of the Senate, who on Jan. 6 opens and reads the votes before both houses of Congress. The winner is sworn into office at noon Jan. 20 [source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration].

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