Frequently Asked Questions: What is the US Electoral College?
WHAT IS AN ELECTORAL COLLEGE?
It is a means by which the President and the Vice-President of the United States are chosen. When an American citizen votes in a presidential election, he is actually voting for a slate of electors who go on to cast a ballot on the voter’s behalf in the election that actually chooses the president.
WHY DOES THE US HAVE AN ELECTORAL COLLEGE?
The founding fathers of the US saw it as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote.
WHAT IS THE MAKE-UP OF ELECTORAL COLLEGE?
It is composed of 538 electors chosen by the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
HOW MANY VOTES DOES EACH STATE HAVE?
Each state has a number of electoral votes in the electoral college equal to its total representation in both Houses of Congress. For example, California, which has 53 representatives in the House and two in the Senate, casts 55 votes in the Electoral College.
HOW MANY ELECTORAL VOTES DOES A CANDIDATE NEED TO WIN?
A candidate must win more than half of the votes in the Electoral College, ie one more than half of the 538 electors. In a word: 270.
WHAT IF NO CANDIDATE GETS 270 VOTES?
That is a statistical probability. If no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives elects the President from the three presidential candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each state delegation has one vote. Thus, for example, California with 53 electoral votes, would get one vote. As would the District of Columbia which has 3 electoral votes.
The Vice-President would be elected by the US Senate from the two Vice-Presidential candidates with the most electoral votes. Each Senator casts one vote for Vice-President. This does leave open the chance that a President and Vice-President could come from different parties. If the House fails to elect a President by January 20, the Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect serves as acting President until the deadlock is resolved in the House.
CAN A PRESIDENT WIN THE ELECTORAL VOTE BUT LOSE THE POPULAR VOTE?
Yes, that can happen because the US President is not chosen by a nation-wide popular vote. It is the electoral college vote totals that decide the winner of the presidential election, not the majority a candidate may have in the nation-wide popular vote totals. A memorable recent example: in the 2000 presidential election, Mr George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.
WHO SELECTS THE ELECTORS?
It varies across the country but usually the electors are nominated or voted at state party conventions. They could be state-level elected officials, party leaders, or people with personal or political ties to the presidential candidate. On Election Day, the voters in each state choose the electors by casting votes for the presidential candidate of their choice.
The electors’ names may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the candidates running for President, depending on the procedure in each State. The winning candidate in each state—except in Nebraska and Maine, which have proportional distribution of the Electors—is awarded all of the state’s Electors. In Nebraska and Maine, the state winner receives two Electors and the winner of each congressional district receives one Elector.
WHEN DOES THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE CAST THE VOTES?
It does not! The Electoral College does not come together to meet as a body; rather, the chosen electors gather in the capital of each state to officially cast their votes for president and vice-president. These ballots are then transmitted to the president of the US Senate who officially declares the winner in front of both the House and the Senate. The meeting of electors takes place more than a month after Election Day - on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December of a presidential election year.
CAN ELECTORS VOTE AS THEY WISH?
Not really, although there is no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote as per the results of the popular vote in their states. Some state laws do require electors to cast their votes in accordance with popular vote. These pledges fall into two categories - electors bound by state law and those bound by pledges to political parties.
In practice, each of the 48 of 50 states and the District of Columbia give all of their electoral votes to the candidate that receives the most votes in that state. The two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska. These two states use an alternative method known as the Congressional District Method to award their electoral votes.In those states, there could be a split of electoral votes.
For example, Maine has four electoral votes and two Congressional districts. It awards one electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the state-wide, “at-large” vote. It is possible for Candidate X to win the first district and receive one Electoral vote, Candidate Y to win the second district and receive one Electoral vote, and Candidate Z, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large Electoral votes. Although this is a possible scenario, it has not actually happened.
Some states fine or disqualify so-called "faithless Electors" who do not vote in accordance with popular votes. More than 99 per cent of electors have voted as pledged. No elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to do so.
WHAT IF THERE IS A TIE IN THE STATE VOTE?
It is a remote possibility but if it does happen, the state law would decide how to break the tie.
A tie would not be known of until late November or early December, after a recount and certification of the election results. Federal law would allow a state to hold a run-off election.
A very close finish could also result in a run-off or legal action to decide the winner. In this case too, the state law would decide who won.