Why does the U.S. have an Electoral College?

How the Electoral College Impacts Elections

Not long after the Electoral College made its debut in the late 18th century, it began to evolve. In 1804, the 12th amendment was put into place which, among other things, allowed electors to vote once for a presidential candidate and once for a vice presidential candidate. The amendment replaced the previous election process, by which electors voted only for two presidential candidates and the loser became vice president [source: History].

Each state receives a specific number of electors based on its Senate membership and population. Each state has two members of Senate and one or more members of the House of Representatives, depending on the number of people who live in its state. For example, a state with two Senators and six Representatives would receive eight electoral votes.

However, the process by which electors are chosen varies from state to state. Electors are chosen by several means, ranging from governor nominations to political party recommendations, and the winners are rarely publicized. They are usually active party members nominated by their state party committees.

On Election Day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, U.S. citizens vote for a joint presidential ticket that includes the political party nominees for president and vice president. In actuality, they are voting for the Electoral College nominees affiliated with that particular political ticket.

The winning electors then follow another mandate spelled out in the 12th Amendment, and in December meet in the states from which they originate to cast their ballots for president and vice president. The electors will generally vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in the state. So, if Candidate A gets 70 percent of the popular vote and Candidate B gets 30 percent, 100 percent of the electors in that state will vote for candidate A. (Two states use a system where the state is divided into districts and electors vote for the winner of the popular vote in their district). But there are exceptions, as we'll see on the next page.

After the electors vote, the results are distributed through various channels, including the federal district court judges, the United States Archivist and the sitting vice president, who also acts as President of the Senate, before being revealed to and certified by Congress. In January, the winner of the electors' presidential election is sworn into office.

Currently, a presidential candidate must receive 270 of 538 electoral votes to be elected chief executive officer of the United States [source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration].