United States Electoral College


In the US, the Electoral College is made up of elected representatives of each state who indirectly appoint the president and vice president. The college has had 538 electors since 1964. The term Electoral College came into usage in the early 19th century to refer to a group of members selected from each state to cast ballots to appoint the president and the vice president. Electors are the selected members of the Electoral College selected on the basis of the number of House of Representatives and Senators from each state to the United States congress.

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Instead of the citizens directly voting for their preferred presidential and vice president candidates, they vote for the electors. Each state allows voters to cast ballots for the electors who in turn vote for their affiliated presidential and vice presidential tickets of various political parties: the political party that gets the majority of the state votes wins all the electoral votes of that state. In their campaigns presidential candidates target states with more electoral votes rather than national majority votes.

Each state selects its own presidential electors as stipulated by the state’s law. The presidential electors of each state are selected on the Election Day by statewide popular vote. The ballots contain names of presidential contesters from where the citizens of all states vote for the president and the running mate as well: actually voters choose electors for their respective states whenever they cast the presidential and vice president ballots. Although the countrywide popular vote is the aggregate by election officials, the popular vote is not considered as the foundation for selecting the two offices. Each elector casts one vote for the president and one vote for the vice president: for a candidate to be declared as the president, he or she must receive majority of electoral votes (currently 270). As result, the electoral vote might produce different result from the national popular vote.

The size of the Electoral College equals the total representation of each state in the United States Congress; that is 435 House of Representatives, 100 senators and three electors from Washington DC, aggregating to 538 electors. The size of the Electoral College may become larger incase a new state is admitted into the federal government (two more senators and at least one house of representative). The number of electors in each state is commensurate with the number of senators and representatives it has in the House of Congress. The number of electors among states may change after 10 years in respect to the results of the United States census. One of the main aims of the US census is to redistribute the 435 members of House of Representatives among the states, basing on the state’s current population. Redistribution of the House of Representatives determines the allocation of electoral votes in each state, for each member of the House of Representative one vote and for each of the two senators,’ one. Each state has two senators and at least one representative; hence each state has at least 3 electoral votes.

The state with a high population has more seats in the House of Representative and hence has the most electors. Currently the six states with the highest number of electors includes; California (55), Texas (34), New York (31), Florida (27), Illinois (21) and Pennsylvania (21). The least populous states which include Alaska, Delaware, North and South Dakota, Montana have three electors each. The nomination of the electors is done by the state’s political parties some months before the Election Day. The US constitution authorizes each state to nominate and choose its electors to the Electoral College. Political parties of each state nominate their electors either during preliminaries or during party conventions. In the state of Pennsylvania, presidential electors are appointed by the campaign committees of the respective presidential candidates in an attempt to have faithful electors.

The US constitution under Article II, Section 1, Clause 2, deters any person holding a federal office from being nominated as the presidential elector. This is done to separate the powers of the executive and the legislative of the country’s federal government.

The US federal elections are held on the first Tuesday of November. The manner in which electors are elected depends on the state’s legislation. Currently, majority of states select their electors by ‘winner-take-all’ popular vote whereby, voters select electors across that state who pledges to vote for the specific presidential and vice president candidates. Under the system citizens do not directly select the president and the deputy by the national majority vote. In voting for their preferred presentational candidate, people in the real sense select electors who in turn elect the president. The winning presidential candidate is decided through aggregating the electors’ votes of the 51 states election. The vote of any individual citizen decides which presidential candidate receives the electors’ vote of one’s state.

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Other method of choosing electors

The Congregational district method is another method of distributing electoral votes across the states. Unlike in the ‘winner take all system’, in the congregational district method, distribution of electoral votes is based on the popular vote in the state’s congregational district. The overall state winner receives two extra electoral votes. The congregational district method of distributing electoral votes today is only used by Maine and Nebraska states where Maine and Nebraska have three and five slots respectively.

Process of electing president by the Electoral College

On November 4th, in any election year, the US citizens in each state choose electors to the Electoral College. After the public announcement of the presidential results, the chosen electors are ascertained by their respective states through a certificate of ascertainment. The state prepares and sends the copies of the certificate to the Archivist of the United States which is a body that overlooks the operations of the Electoral College.

On 15th December after election, the very same year, the electors from each state converge within their state to formally elect the president and vice president of the US. The accumulated states electors never at one time meet together in a common meeting in order to avoid cases of bribery, corruption and external influence. The electors’ votes are recorded in certificates of vote’. Then, the electors sign and seal the package containing the electors’ votes which is then sent to the president of the senate, the archivist of the US and other election officials. The certificate of vote carries the number of electoral votes for each office and how many votes each has received.

On December 24th the president of the senate, the archivist of the United States and states official must have received the package containing the electors’ votes. The counting of electors’ votes is done on the 6th day of January of the year succeeding the election year.

It happens that an elector does not cast his/her vote to the candidate on whom he or she has pledged to or completely fails to vote for any candidate. Although the federal constitution does not provide for a law that compels electors to vote with respect to the majority vote in their state, some states have measures to punish those who fail to follow the popular vote rule. The states laws require electors to vote for the candidate with the majority popular votes in their respective states. In some states those electors who fail to pledge to their presidential candidate may be subjected to fines, or their votes declared null and void. Other states go an ‘extra mile’ to replace such electors in the next elections. Even if the federal constitution does not require electors to be faithful, the Supreme Court holds that electors should not be free to act as they wish, but the political parties may demand electors according to their pledges. Currently it is rare to have cases of unfaithful electors because many electors choose to remain royal to their respective parties.

The federal law requires that the Congress meets in a joint session and mandates the congress to count votes cast by the state’s electors and announce the winner. The session is convened on January the sixth day of the year succeeding the meeting of the electors. The meeting in many cases is chaired by the sitting vice president although sometimes the sitting head of the country may chair instead. The box containing the elector votes is brought to the congress for counting. Each member of the House of Representative appoints two tellers to participate in the tallying the electors’ votes. If there are no objections, after the tallying is over the person overseeing the election announces the vote and even, if possible the president and vice president elect.

Presidential Election by the House of Representatives

If none of the presidential candidates attains the required 270 electoral votes out of the 538 then the House of Representatives is mandated by the constitution to convene a session to elect the president: For instance if there is a tie of 269 votes. The House of Representatives elects the president from the three top contestants; that is, the three who got many electoral votes. Each state representative has one vote and votes as a block. For any candidate to become the president elect he/she must receive a majority of the state’s votes (today 26). If no one wins in the first round, balloting continues until a president is chosen. The federal law requires that at least two-thirds of all states must be in the house for the election to progress.

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Vice presidential Election by the senate

If the electoral votes fail to give a winner in the vice presidential race, then the senate meets to elect either of the vice presidential candidates to occupy the seat. The senate is only allowed to choose the two candidates with the majority electoral votes. Balloting is done by the individual senators rather than by state delegates. If by the time of inauguration there is no president elect, then the vice president elect will assume as the acting president until the house elects the president. However, if there is still a deadlock in the vice presidential race then, the sitting speaker of the house will play the role of the president until the house and senate selects the president and vice president respectively.

Electoral College and the 2002 elections

The 2002 election is one of few US elections where the presidential winner by countrywide majority vote was not elected as the president. The battle for the White House was between George w. Bush son to former US president , running as the Republican candidate against Al Gore the then sitting vice president of the Democratic party. Although George W Bush lost in the majority popular vote to Al Gore, he was elected as the president by the majority of Electoral College. Gore won the countrywide majority vote by a margin of 0.5 per cent; Bush won the Electoral College by 271 to 266. A controversy arose on who won the 25 electoral votes in the State of Florida; this was an uncommon event where the losing candidate was declared the president despite the re-count of votes in Florida.

Bush comfortably won the southern states by sizeable margins while, Gore won the Northern states with equal margins. The state of Florida electoral vote was to decide the winner of the race because as for the morning prior to the announcement of the results, Bush had 246 electoral votes, while Gore had 255, with 270 electoral votes needed to win. Mathematically, who ever won the 25 electoral votes in Florida would win the race. The winner of that election was not announced until after one month from the day of election because there was a re-count of the presidential ballots in Florida.

The first round recount was done where the margin by which Bush led Gore was reduced to 500 votes only, which triggered another recount. After a series of recounts it ended in court. The decision of the US Supreme Court ended the re-count process and allowed Florida to certify its votes according to Florida’s state election law. After the certification Texas Governor George W Bush was declared president. However on January 6 2001, in a secession to certify electoral vote, members of the House of Representatives, particularly the Democrats, filed objections on the electoral votes of Florida. Their objections were ruled by the president of the senate and Bush went on to become the president of the USA. This is an example of an event where the Electoral College decides on who to become the next president.

Arguments for Electoral College system

Prevents victory by regional interest and royalty

Advocators of the Electoral College system believe that, the system eliminates a victory by a presidential candidate by just winning in the most populous states over less populous ones. The system brings national cohesion because it ensures that the candidate with popular support is elected as the president rather than winning as result of regional royalty and interest. The system ensures that any presidential candidate must create country wide popularity for him or her to be selected as president. As a result the presidential candidate cannot select their running mate from their state. Today there is no state with the majority electoral votes of 270 needed for one to become a president. Due to this a presidential candidate is required to form coalitions of states rather than relying on one populous state or region.

Such a move reduces regional problems across states as the candidates bring the states under one umbrella. Proponents of the Electoral College system believe that the practical advantages of distribution of popular support are more than any merits of winning by merely majority of the popular votes.

Electoral College enhances status of the minority

With the Electoral College system a presidential candidate may either win all or none of the state’s electoral votes. This gives the minorities the chance to determine whether the candidate will win because their votes count. Therefore the presidential candidate will approach even the small minorities and interest groups and address their needs hence the system avoids diminishing interest of minorities by distributing the voter participation.

The system ensures political stability across the nation. By its two political party systems, the Electoral College system ensures that political stability prevails in the nation. Advocates of the Electoral College system argue that it is easier for the two party systems to change in times of political and cultural changes hence ensuring political stability in the country. The system for a long time has helped to ensure that the US has two political parties. This is evidenced because none of any minor political parties has ever won enough electoral votes to have a chance for the presidency. Hence the system forces new and minor parties to join the existing large parties in the states. At the end we have two major political parties committed to the public interest rather than many small political parties with regional or states interest. Such social organization and political coalitions allows political stability to prevail in the country.

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Maintain federal government system

The United States of America government is made up of a coalition of states where political power rests on the state’s structure. Proponents of the Electoral College argue that with the federal government structure, each state receives equal attention in the federal level, regardless of the state’s population. The federal system allows each state to formulate its own laws on election without any external influence. The US congress is designed such that, the House of Representatives represents each state according to its population while, the senate represents each state equally no matter how populous the state is.

The Electoral College on the other hand represents the state’s choice for the president and vice president. The number of electors in the Electoral College equals the number of House of Representative and senators from each state. Therefore removing the Electoral College in favor of countrywide popular vote would eliminate the structure of the federal government leading to a centralized national government.

Death of a candidate

Each state is given the authority to select electors who represents them in the Electoral College. The electors are mandated to elect the president and vice president of USA. In a case whereby a presidential candidate dies or otherwise prove unsuitable for the office, then the Electoral College will elect a replacement in a reasonable manner rather than the public doing it.

Removes election problems

Supporters of the Electoral College believe that, the system prevents influence of party dominance from inflating the number of votes for a candidate hence affecting the outcome of the final tally. The college allows a state-by-state re-count of votes incase disputes arise rather than having a nation wide re-count.


Berns, Walter (Ed.). “After the people vote: steps in choosing the president”. Washington: America enterprise institute for public policy research, 1983.

Glennon, Michael J. “When no majority rules: the Electoral College and presidential succession”. Washington D.C congregational Quarterly, 1992. Web.

Miller, Arthur H. and Thomas F. Klobucar. “The Role of Issues in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election”. Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, No1 2003. U.S. Electoral College, ‘Frequently Asked Questions’.

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