How the Electoral College Works

By: Kevin Bonsor & Laurie L. Dove  | 
staff verify electoral college votes
House Clerk staff verify the official Electoral College votes from the State of Illinois during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, USA on Jan. 6, 2017. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Do you remember voting for the president in a mock election in elementary school or junior high? Maybe you selected your candidate at random because you didn't really know the difference between the two (or care). Well, now you're older and wiser and know that who you vote for does make a difference. Or does it?

Take the Electoral College, for instance. Every four years, on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November, millions of U.S. citizens go to local voting booths to cast a vote for the next president and vice president of their country. Their votes are recorded and counted, and the winner is declared — unless the majority of Electoral College members vote for another candidate, of course [source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration].


Truth is, the results of the popular vote are not guaranteed to stand because the presidential election is really decided by the votes of the Electoral College. Although this could feel as though your vote is about as decisive as those of an elementary school election, the Electoral College process was actually put in place to ensure a nationwide system of fairness. When you cast your vote for president, you also vote for an often-unnamed elector who will cast a ballot in a separate election that ultimately will choose the president.

For some of us, the Electoral College process (and its outcome) may seem a bit shocking. In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, for example, more Americans voted for Gore, but Bush actually won the presidency because he was awarded the majority of Electoral College votes. It's a political upset that's occurred several times since the first U.S. presidential election; five presidents have been elected by the Electoral College after losing the popular vote.

By now you're probably wondering how — and why — the Electoral College began. We'll explore its historic start in the next section.

History of the Electoral College

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 2020 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].

Selecting Electors

It's presidential election day. You make a selection at your polling place and with your resplendent "I voted" sticker step into the November air, satisfied you've made your wishes known. But what if your vote, the one you thought you cast for a presidential candidate, was actually used to elect someone whose name you don't even know — who would cast a presidential vote on your behalf?

This may sound bizarre, but this is exactly what takes place during a U.S. presidential election. By voting for a Republican presidential candidate, for example, you are really voting for a member of the Electoral College who is expected — but not required — to vote along party lines, too.


The votes of the Electoral College, comprised of 538 electors divvied up by state, elect the president weeks after Americans vote in a presidential election.

State legislatures are responsible for nominating electors. The process can actually differ from state to state. In general, though, the two most common ways are:

  • The elector is nominated by his or her state party committee (perhaps to reward many years of service to the party).
  • The elector campaigns for a spot and the decision is made during a vote held at the state's party convention.

Usually, electors are people who are politically active in their party (be it Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Republican or Independent) or connected to the political arena. This includes political activists, party leaders, elected officials of the state and even people who have personal or political ties to the presidential candidates.

And while the Constitution makes no mention of qualifications that must be met to become an Electoral College member, it does determine an Electoral College member cannot be:

  • a member of Congress
  • a high-ranking U.S. official in a position of "trust or profit," which refers to a member of Congress accepting an appointment to executive office
  • someone who has "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the U.S. [source: U.S. National Archives and Records]

So could a member of the electoral college — whom you've helped elect by casting your presidential vote — decide to support an opponent instead? Find out in the next section.

Legislating the 'Faithless' and Electoral College Systems

Judge Robert Rosenberg, dimpled chad
Judge Robert Rosenberg of the Broward County Canvassing Board uses a magnifying glass to view a dimpled chad on a punch-hole ballot during a recount of votes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during the 2000 election. Robert King/Newsmakers/Getty Images

The Electoral College members for each state are voted on by the state's residents on voting day. In some states, the electors' names are printed on the ballots directly under the presidential candidates' names or grouped by party somewhere else on the ballot. In other states, the names of electoral college nominees are not even listed on the ballot.

When you vote for a presidential and vice-presidential candidate on the ballot, you are really voting for the electors of the political party (or unaffiliated candidate) by which they were nominated. Take the North Carolina General Statute § 163-209, for example: "A vote for the candidates for President and Vice-President named on the ballot is a vote for the electors..." [source: North Carolina General Assembly].


This is the case for 48 states. It's known as the winner-take-all system, where all electors go with the candidate who wins the popular vote regardless of how close the vote is. So if the Democratic candidate narrowly wins the popular vote in Texas, for instance, 38 Democratic electors (38 being the total number of electoral votes in the state) will represent Texas as a voting block.

The other system, known as the congressional district method, is observed in Maine and Nebraska. In these states, the vote is split between the electoral vote which goes to the winner of the statewide popular vote and the congressional district vote. The state is divided into congressional districts, each with one electoral vote. The winner of the popular vote in each district is awarded an electoral vote. Potentially, this could result in a divided electoral vote but so far it has not happened in either state [source: Cornell University Law School].

Most of the time, electors cast their votes for the candidate who has received the most votes in the state he or she represents, or for the candidate affiliated with his or her political party. However, there have been times when electors have voted contrary to the people's decision. When electors cast their vote without following the popular vote or their party vote, they are known as faithless electors [source: Weingast].

In response to faithless electors' actions, at least two dozen states have created laws to enforce an elector's pledge to his or her party vote or the popular vote. Some states even assess a misdemeanor charge and a fine. For example, the state of North Carolina fines faithless electors $10,000. However, a number of scholars believe such state-level laws would not survive constitutional challenge; of the 158 faithless electors, none have ever been punished [source: Project Vote Smart].

Electoral College Results

In most presidential elections, the candidate who wins the popular vote will also receive the majority of the electoral votes, but this is not always the case. Some electors abstain from voting, while others vote differently than they pledged to vote. Despite 11th hour changes within the Electoral College, only five candidates in U.S. history have won an election by losing the popular vote and winning (or deadlocking) the electoral vote:

  • 1824: John Quincy Adams, the son of former President John Adams, received some 38,000 fewer votes than Andrew Jackson, but neither candidate won a majority of the Electoral College. Adams was awarded the presidency when the election was thrown to the House of Representatives.
  • 1876: Nearly unanimous support from small states gave Rutherford B. Hayes a one-vote margin in the Electoral College, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden by 264,000 votes. Hayes carried five out of the six smallest states (excluding Delaware). These five states plus Colorado gave Hayes 22 electoral votes with only 109,000 popular votes. At the time, Colorado had been just been admitted to the Union and decided to appoint electors instead of holding elections. So, Hayes won Colorado's three electoral votes with zero popular votes. It was the only time in U.S. history that small state support has decided an election.
  • 1888: Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote by 95,713 votes to Grover Cleveland, but won the electoral vote by 65. In this instance, some say the Electoral College worked the way it is designed to work by preventing a candidate from winning an election based on support from one region of the country. The South overwhelmingly supported Cleveland, and he won by more than 425,000 votes in six southern states. However, in the rest of the country he lost by more than 300,000 votes [source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration].
  • In 2000, Al Gore received 50,992,335 votes nationwide and George W. Bush received 50,455,156 votes. The race was so close in Florida that ineffectively punched ballots (known as "hanging chads") required a manual recount because the voter intent couldn't be deciphered by machine. Eventually, Bush was awarded the state of Florida by the U.S. Supreme Court and had a total of 271 electoral votes, which beat Gore's 266 electoral votes [source: Gore].
  • 2016: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million over Donald Trump, the largest margin by a presidential loser in U.S. history. But Trump won 306 electoral votes to Clinton's 232. He won all the Great Lakes states that traditionally vote Democrat, plus four big battleground states (including Florida and Michigan) by less than 1 percentage point [source: Ayres]. Clinton had bigger leads in fewer, but more populous states, like California.

Today, a candidate must receive 270 of the 538 votes to win the election. In cases where no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the decision is thrown to the House of Representatives by virtue of the 12th Amendment. The House then selects the president by majority vote with each state delegation receiving one vote to cast for the three candidates who received the most electoral votes.


The Electoral College Debate

Proponents of the Electoral College say the system serves its purpose, despite the fact that the candidate who wins the popular vote doesn't always win the election. The Electoral College is a block, or weighed, voting system designed to give more power to the states with more votes, but allows for small states to swing an election, as happened in 1876. Under this system, each state is assigned a specific number of votes proportional to its population, so that each state's power is representative of its population. So, while winning the popular vote may not ensure a candidate's victory, a candidate must gain popular support of a particular state to win the votes in that state. The goal of any candidate is to put together the right combination of states to earn 270 electoral votes.

As the 2000 election approached, some observers thought that Bush, the son of a former president, could win the popular vote, but that his opponent, Gore, could win the Electoral College vote because Gore was leading in certain big states, such as California, New York and Pennsylvania. In the end, Gore secured the popular vote, but Bush won by securing the majority of votes in the Electoral College.


Since then, a push to reform the Electoral College has been gaining steam. As of December 2020, 15 states and the District of Columbia (with 196 electoral votes) have passed legislation that mandates electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote. Other states are introducing an Electoral College reform bill or discussing it in committee [source: National Popular Vote]. This National Popular Vote law would take effect only when it's been passed by enough states to have a total number of electoral votes of 270.

To many, aligning the electoral vote with the popular vote seems like a valid solution. Others believe there must be a better way to select a president than by popular vote alone. Otherwise, small states or states with sparse populations won't be equally represented [source: Rudin]. While the future of the Electoral College may be uncertain, one thing isn't up for grabs: It's likely to be a controversial subject well into the future.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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  • Cornell University Law School. "12th Amendment." (Oct. 10, 2012)
  • Cornell University Law School. "Elections." (Oct. 10, 2012)
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  • National Popular Vote. "Progress by State." (Oct. 10, 2012)
  • North Carolina General Assembly. "Statutes." (Oct. 10, 2012)
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  • U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. "What is the Electoral College?" (Oct. 10, 2012)
  • U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. "Who are the Electors?" (Oct. 10, 2012)
  • Weingast, David. "Electoral College." Scholastic. July 15, 2007. (Oct. 10, 2012)