What is the Electoral College?
For more than 230 years, the United States has enjoyed exceptional success with a system of constitutional and representative government. One reason is the Electoral College.
The Electoral College unifies, moderates, and protects American politics. It is part of what makes the United States a republic. For more than 230 years, the United States has enjoyed exceptional success with a system of constitutional and representative government. One reason is the Electoral College.
The Electoral College is, to be exact, the group of representatives (Electors) chosen in each state to cast the official ballots (electoral votes) for President and Vice President of the United States. Each state gets as many Electors as it has members of the U.S. House and Senate—the math is the same as in Congress.
Before a presidential election, political parties in each state nominate people to become that state’s Electors—people who pledge to cast electoral votes for that party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
When we vote in a presidential election, we are really voting for our candidate’s Electors—if our candidate wins in our state, those Electors will represent us in the Electoral College, casting their electoral votes for our candidate. In other words, the Electoral College is a two-step democratic process.
The Constitution empowers state legislatures to figure out how Electors are selected. In 48 states and DC, all Electors are chosen based on the statewide vote—a “winner-take-all” system. In Maine and Nebraska, one Elector is elected in each Congressional District and the remaining two are elected based on the statewide vote.
Congress sets the date when Electors are chosen (Election Day in early November) and when Electors meet to cast electoral votes (in December). The Constitution requires Electors to meet in their own states (they never meet altogether—the Framers put this in the Constitution to avoid corruption). Each state’s electoral votes are sent to Congress to count and certify the official outcome. (A full Electoral College timeline is at the National Archives website.)
Very rarely, an Elector doesn’t vote as expected (so-called “faithless” Electors), but this has never come close to changing the outcome of an election.
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College to reduce the risks of corruption, regionalism, and back-room politics. They rejected a national popular vote because it lacked any checks and balances.
The Electoral College forces candidates to build national support, unifying rather than dividing the country. (Our greatest failure of domestic tranquility, the American Civil War, occurred only when other political forces overcame the Electoral College incentives that favor moderate, two-party politics and national unity.)
The Electoral College works even better than the Framers expected. They thought the system would often deadlock and leave the final decision to the House of Representatives. In fact, Electors became faithful representatives of their states and the election has only gone to the House twice—in 1800 and 1824.
Because most states choose Electors by winner-take-all, presidential candidates need both a base of states where they enjoy strong support and then must reach out into the most moderate, evenly balanced states to build a broad enough coalition to win an Electoral College majority.
To become President, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes—currently 270 out of 538.
The Electoral College turns swing states into microcosms of America, where candidates are forced to go beyond the big cities and reach out to all kinds of people. At the same time, safe states are essential for a party to have any claim to national status or any possibility of winning the presidency. Every state matters.
Threats to the Electoral College
A dangerous campaign seeks to nullify the Electoral College without changing the Constitution—and it is almost 3/4 of the way to taking effect. Who is behind the National Popular Vote interstate compact? How would NPV destabilize our politics and increase the risk from fraud and disputes?