How the Electoral College Works

By Sarah Koch

 

The Electoral College is a group of 538 electors who choose presidents on behalf of the people.  This number is calculated by adding each state’s two Senate seats with the number of seats they hold in the House of Representatives.  For example, Kentucky currently has six seats in Congress, so 2 + 6 = 8 electoral votes.  This number is subject to change every ten years when the House reapportions its seats based on census population data.  The last three votes from Washington, D.C. were added with the 23rd Amendment in 1961.  All states except Maine and Nebraska give their electoral votes to the winner of the state-wide popular vote.  These two “purple states” split votes by Congressional district.

In order to win the Presidency, a candidate must secure 270 votes—a majority—from the Electoral College.  Ties of 269-269 are possible but have not yet occurred in modern politics.  If this happens, the vote goes to the House of Representatives, where each state’s group of representatives is allowed one vote for President.  In this situation, the Senate chooses the Vice President.

Individual electors are chosen by states’ political parties.  After citizens cast their ballots in November, electors are expected to vote for whichever candidate received the most votes in their state, but they are not legally required to stay true to their word; “faithless electors” are rare but real.  In recent years, however, some states have begun passing laws requiring electors to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state.

The Electoral College has recently caused controversy because it does not always elect the winner of the popular vote.  It has historically benefited Republicans, starting with Bush v. Gore and occurring most recently with President Trump.  We can trace this tendency back to when the Framers of the Constitution created the Electoral College.  Concerns had arisen over using only the popular vote because it was thought to give more representation to the North.  This was technically true, but only because Southerners did not allow slaves to vote and counted them as 3/5 of a person in censuses.

A change to the election process occurred after the infamous election of 1800.  Previously, each elector had only one vote to cast; the winner of the election was named President, while the runner-up became VP.  However, this was a source of conflict in 1800 because of a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, political nemeses and both members of the Democratic-Republican party.  The vote went to Congress, where Jefferson was elected President and Burr Vice President.  The 12th Amendment subsequently gave electors two votes, one for President and one for VP.  Political parties now choose one candidate to represent them through primaries, and the winners name their running mates before people head to the polls in November.

 

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