How Does the Electoral College Work: Process, History & Public Opinions

How Does the Electoral College Work: Process, History & Public Opinions
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

In 2019, nearly two billion voters in 50 countries all throughout the world were expected to choose their new state leaders, federal representatives, and local representatives (Haddad et al., 2019). Among these countries, Suriname, Botswana, South Africa, and the US implement indirect elections to vote for a new leader (DeSilver, 2016).

However, the US stands out in one element: its use of a voter-elected Electoral College to pick a president and vice president. This article explains what the US Electoral College is—a process that comes from the first US presidential elections—how does Electoral College work, and public opinion on the system.

How Does the Electoral College Work Table of Contents

  1. What is the United States Electoral College?
  2. A Brief History of the United States Electoral College
  3. Facts and Figures about the Electoral College
  4. How does the electoral college work?
  5. Criticism and Support of the U.S. Electoral College
  6. Public Opinion on the Electoral College

What is the United States Electoral College?

The United States Electoral College is a body of “Electors” that convenes every four years to elect the president and vice president of the United States. The Electoral College process starts with the popular election, which occurs every fourth of November, where voters choose electors for their respective states. These Electors from each State, under the U.S. Constitution, are assigned the duty and right to cast the actual votes, and in the process, electing the U.S. President and Vice President (Anglim, 1993, cited in Tollar & Kimball, 2020). Candidates must get an absolute majority of at least 270 electoral votes to win the elections.

The Electoral College process is mandated by the United States Constitution, with the 12th Amendment establishing the rules that have governed U.S. presidential elections since 1804.

A Brief History of the United States Electoral College

The Electoral College is part of the original design of the U.S. Constitution, put in place by the nation’s founding fathers in 1787. The Electoral College was intended as “a compromise between the election of the president by a vote in Congress and the election of a president by a popular vote of qualified citizens.” (Electoral College History, 2019)

Since 1880, electors for each state have been chosen through a popular election held on Election Day. However, in the original plan for the Electoral College, as it was drafted in the U.S. Constitution, each elector casts two votes for president. The presidential candidate receiving the lower number of votes would then become vice president.

In the first U.S. presidential election, held in 1789, George Washington received the highest number of electoral votes. Getting the second-highest number of electoral votes, John Adams, who then became the country’s first vice president.

The emergence of political parties soon complicated the process. Controversies caused by having the president and vice president from different political properties resulted in the 12th Amendment. Ratified in 1804, it requires electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president (The 12th Amendment, n.d.).

Source: ProCon

Why the U.S. Electoral College Is in Place

The concept of a college of electors was the result of lengthy debates during the 1787 Constitutional Convention on how to elect the nation’s president (Bomboy, 2016). Initially, it was proposed that Congress would elect the president. However, this could violate the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Likewise, delegates at the convention rejected the direct election of the president through popular vote because they feared that people would vote without sufficient information about candidates outside their state (Kimberling, 1992).

Various American founding fathers have expressed what they perceived to be the advantages of the electoral college system. For instance, in one of his essays for The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton argued that the said election system prevented a party-run legislature. Moreover, he explained that the regular selection of new electors prevented the formation of a permanent body that could be influenced by foreign interests in their task of choosing the nation’s president (Hamilton, 1788).

According to Cervas and Grofman (2019), through the years, despite all the changes in politics and society, its two most fundamental features have withstood the test of time. First, it functions to seat allocations that are not completely equivalent to population, with the system of allotment following the combined total of Senate and Congressional seats per US State. Second, it implements the winner-take-all outcomes at the State level (except in Nebraska and Maine, where the winner-take-all rule functions at the congressional district level).

Facts and Figures about the Electoral College

The United States Electoral College has seen various changes since its ratification in the late 1700s. The following facts and figures provide a picture of the current and past Electoral Colleges of the United States.

  • California currently has the most electors, with 55 electoral votes.
  • The seven least populous states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) have three electors each.
  • In the first four election years (1788, 1792, 1796, and 1904), each elector cast two votes for president. The Twelfth Amendment put an end to this practice.
  • There have been five U.S. presidential elections where the winner of the electoral vote lost the popular vote: 1824 (John Quincy Adams), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison), 2000 (George W. Bush), and 2016 (Donald Trump).
  • At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, James Wilson proposed a “three-fifths compromise,” where only three-fifths of the actual slave population was counted in a state’s total population (U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 3). This compromise was repealed in 1868 by the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • In 1969, an amendment to abolish the Electoral College was passed in the House of Representatives but was filibustered in the Senate (Klein, 2012).

Source: Adam Carr's Election Archive

How does the electoral college process work?

People from other countries often ask ‘How does the Electoral College work?’ This suffices a relatively lengthy explanation. When Americans cast their votes on Election Day, they actually vote for a slate of electors rather than the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. So, how do electoral votes work? The winning electors of this popular vote will later combine to form the Electoral College. Electors later meet in mid-December—specifically the Monday after the second Wednesday of the month—to cast their electoral individual votes for president and vice president on separate ballots.

Well, then how does the electorial college work in terms of declaring a winner? Though electors are free agents, they typically vote for candidates of the party to whom they have been pledged. In January, following the election year, the US Congress assembles in a joint session to count these electoral votes and declare the winners of the elections.

Apportionment of Electoral Votes

How does the work in terms of appointing votes? The number of electors allocated to each state equals the number of the state’s representatives, plus two electors for the state’s senators in the U.S. Congress. (U.S. Const. art. II, § 1) In turn, a state’s number of representatives is based on the state’s population; this is adjusted every 10 years based on results from the United States Census. Based on the 2010 census, for instance, each state representative stood for an average of 711,000 individuals (Burnett, 2011).

The Electoral College currently consists of 538 electors, based on 435 representatives and 100 senators from the 50 states. According to the 23rd Amendment, Washington, D.C., gets as many electoral votes as it would have if it were a state. However, the District of Columbia cannot get more electors than the least populous state. As such, D.C. was allocated three electors.

Source: Adam Carr's Election Arcive

Selection of Electors

How does an Electoral College work when selecting electors? In practice, political parties are allowed to select their own slate of prospective electors. As such, political parties and legislative bodies nominate electors in various ways. For instance, in Oklahoma, Virginia, and North Carolina, the selection occurs at party conventions. No matter the selection process, electors are usually strong, loyal, well-known supporters of their respective political parties (How the Electoral College Works Today, n.d.).

While political parties can choose their own electors, the U.S. Constitution has provisions in place for what electors cannot be (Neale, 2017a). Senators, representatives, and persons holding an “Office of Trust or Profit under the United States” cannot serve as electors. This means that any employee of the United States government, whether elected or appointed, cannot be selected for the office of elector.

Despite their critical responsibilities, electors generally receive little recognition, if any (Neale, 2017a). Elector names appear on the ballot in only eight states.

On Election Day, all but two states use the winner-takes-all method of determining which political party appoints all electors for that state (How the Electoral College Works Today, n.d.). Maine and Nebraska do not use this method of allocating electors; instead, these states use the congressional district method. In these states, the winning party of the popular vote in each of the state’s congressional districts can appoint one elector, and the winner of the statewide vote gets the state’s remaining two electors.

Meetings of the Electors

Electors do not actually meet as one body to elect the president and vice president. Instead, the 12th Amendment requires electors to “meet in their respective states.” The American founding fathers put this provision in place to prevent intrigue and keep the election safe from manipulation (Neale, 2017a).

How does electoral votes work at this stage? After the national election, the chosen electors in each state meet in their state capitals to cast their electoral votes for president and vice president. Procedures in each state usually vary, but the proceedings unfold in a similar sequence across states. An election certification official opens the meeting by reading the Certificate of Ascertainment, which lists the electors who have been chosen. A president or chairman and a secretary are selected to preside over the meeting and take minutes, respectively.

At the time of balloting, each elector submits a written ballot with the name of a presidential candidate. Appointed tellers count these ballots and announce the results. The same process is used for electing a vice president.

At the end of the meeting, selectors from each state complete Certificates of Vote, which indicate the names of candidates who received an electoral vote for the offices of the president and vice president. The certificates are sent to the President of the Senate, the Archivist of the United States, the state’s Secretary of State, and the chief judge of the U.S. district court where the electors met.

Faithless Electors

A faithless elector is an elector who casts a vote, or at least attempts to do so, for a candidate other than their party’s nominee. To date, faithless electors’ actions have never changed the outcome of a presidential election (Faithless Electors, n.d.) Despite this, 32 states and the District of Columbia have laws in place against faithless electors, with penalties varying per state. In Washington, for instance, faithless electors in the 2016 election were fined. In other states, such as Colorado and Minnesota, faithless electors’ votes are voided.

In 58 national elections, there have been only 165 faithless electors. The majority of these electors—71, to be exact—changed their votes because of the death of the candidates they have pledged to vote for. In the 2016 elections, in particular, seven electors cast votes for candidates to whom they were not pledged (Official 2016 Presidential Election Results, 2017). The 2016 election was the first election in more than 100 years in which multiple faithless electors—later dubbed the Hamilton Electors—arose in an effort to alter the election’s results (O’Donnell, 2016).

Despite existing state legislation prohibiting faithless electors, constitutional scholars believe that chosen electors are free agents who can vote for any candidate who meets the requirements for the president and vice president (Neale, 2017a).

Source: FairVote

Declaration of Election Winners

The 12th Amendment requires Congress to assemble in a joint session on January 6th of the year immediately following the elector meetings (U.S. Const. amend. XII). In this joint session, electoral votes are counted and winners of the election are declared. Two tellers are appointed by each house to count the votes, given the nature of how Electoral College works.

Members of Congress can object to the vote count of any state. A state’s Certificate of Vote can be rejected as well if both Houses of Congress vote to accept the objection.

After all electoral votes are counted, the presiding officer of the joint session declares the final result of the vote and announces the names of candidates elected president and vice president. This formalizes the recognition of the president-elect and the vice-president-elect, who are later sworn into office.

Contingencies for Elections

The Twelfth Amendment also has provisions for cases when no candidate for president receives a majority of the electoral votes. In such events, the House of Representatives goes into session immediately to choose from among the three candidates who received the highest number of electoral votes for president. Each state delegation has a single vote, and delegations from at least two-thirds of all states must be present for voting to commence.

A candidate must receive an absolute majority of state delegation votes to be declared the president-elect. The House continues balloting until a president is elected.

In situations where no candidate for vice president receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, the Senate goes into session to choose a vice president. Two-thirds of senators must be present for voting to take place. Senators can choose from all candidates with the highest and second-highest number of electoral votes, with senators each casting one ballot.

Criticism and Support of the U.S. Electoral College

Internet searches like “how does the electoral collage work” indicate public curiosity about how the system works. Whether the Electoral College remains a suitable method of electing presidents and vice presidents is also a matter of ongoing debate, and proponents and opponents of the system have been around since before 1800 (Neale, 2017b). In fact, the U.S. Electoral College is at the center of over 700 Congress proposals for amendment or elimination (Can the Electoral College Be Abolished, 2019).

The Electoral College, at best, is broadly misconstrued as being the legal means to elect the President of the United States; at worst, it is totally distrusted (Swift, 2016, cited in Tollar & Kimball, 2020). The following sections discuss the main arguments against and in support of the electoral college system.

Criticisms against the Electoral College

Firstly, proponents of reforming the Electoral College maintain that the system is intrinsically undemocratic, and the indirect election of the president and vice president makes the system incompatible with modern democratic values and practices (Neale, 2017b). This claim is compounded by the fact there have been five elections to date when the Electoral College winner did not receive a plurality of the nationwide popular vote (Edwards, 2019). Edwards further explains that the Electoral College “has the potential to undo the people’s will at many points in the long journey from the selection of electors to counting their votes in Congress.”

Another point of criticism against the Electoral College is that it encourages an exclusive focus on large swing states. Swing states are states that are undecided between the Democratic or Republican parties, and, thus could be won by either party’s candidates. Because of their undecided nature, these states are usually heavily targeted by major campaigns (Sabato, et al., 2016). Because the majority of the states are not priorities for campaign visits and money, vanden Heuvel (2012) explains that “four out of five” voters end up ignored. Edwards (2011) further asserts that, in 2008, campaigns were not mounted nationwide but rather only on select states.

Through the years, more and more people raise the criticism that the Electoral College had long outlived its original objective, that it generates a process of wasted votes, that it operates to modify and/or depress voter turnout, and that it inordinately weighs the votes of smaller States compared to bigger ones (Duquette et al., 2017).

The excessive focus on swing states also results in voter turnout becoming largely insignificant in non-swing states, since one political party already dominates these so-called “safe states.” The Electoral College decreases the advantage of political parties encouraging voters to participate in the elections, except if these votes come from closely fought swing states (Nivola, 2005).

Source: RealClearPolitics

Support of the Electoral College

One of the key arguments in support of the U.S. Electoral College is that it accurately symbolizes the nature of the U.S. as a federal republic. The political structure of the U.S. is built around the idea of a federation that divides power between the federal government and the states. Guelzo (2018) argued that abolishing the Electoral College might satisfy a yearning for direct democracy, but it would also dismantle federalism.

Another argument for the Electoral College states that the system allows for the preservation of checks and balances (England, 2020). Through the Electoral College, states are kept in charge of election administration and presidential appointees are prevented from running presidential elections. England further elaborates that the electoral college system has encouraged smarter politicians to build broader nationwide coalitions and break down sectional divides. It also resolves a nation’s most pressing matters, such as automation risks, poverty, and drug abuse among college students, to name a few.

Also, another argument in support of the Electoral College is that the system empowers minority groups to vote. Kimberling (1992) explains that, because of the winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, the Electoral College encourages candidates to court minorities and advocacy groups. The voting power of these minority groups would otherwise be decreased because of low voter turnout.

Percentage of Democrats and Republicans in Favor of the Popular Vote

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Source: Pew Research Center

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Public Opinion on the Electoral College and Electoral Reforms

For a long time, the electoral college process has been one of the most heated debate topics among Americans. In 2013, for instance, a Gallup poll revealed that 63% of American adults were in favor of doing away with the Electoral College (Saad, 2013). A more recent 2020 Pew Research Center Poll indicates similar sentiments, with 58% of American adults saying that the U.S. Constitution should be amended so that the winner of the popular vote wins the presidential elections (Daniller, 2020).

While proposals to amend or abolish the electoral college system haven’t been successful, an agreement on the matter has been reached between a group of US states and the District of Columbia. The result of this agreement is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPCIV), which awards the involved states’ electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the overall popular vote nationwide (Agreement among the States, n.d.). This compact would only come into effect if it achieves a majority of the country’s 538 electoral votes.

As of March 2020, this compact has been adopted by 15 states and D.C, representing 196 electoral votes (Agreement among the States, n.d.). Still needing an additional 74 electoral votes to achieve the electoral vote majority, the NPCIV may still have a long way to go before it achieves legal force.


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