By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
The most critical way presidential elections differ from other types of elections is the actual mechanism used in the United States to elect a president—the Electoral College. The Electoral College is one of the compromises that the framers of the Constitution had to adopt in order to reach an agreement on ratification.
The Electoral College System
Some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted the elected members of Congress to select the president, not citizens who could steer the fledgling country in the wrong direction.
Other delegates argued that the new government was conceived as a democracy, so the people should directly decide who the president is. The compromise they devised was the Electoral College—a group of electors selected neither by Congress nor elected by the people but appointed by the states.
The people would cast their votes for president, but indirectly. They would be voting for independent electors who would cast ballots for president. This way, the new country would have a president with meaningful powers, but because he would ultimately be selected by the society’s elites, the risk of a president gaining too much authority by appealing directly to the people could be mitigated.
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Electoral Colleges in the House
Each state has a set number of electors that it sends to the Electoral College. The number of electors allocated to each state is equal to the total number of representatives it has in Congress, meaning the House plus Senate. For example, Virginia has 11 representatives in the House and two Senators. Therefore, Virginia has 13 votes in the Electoral College.
With the ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961, the District of Columbia has three Electoral College votes, so the total votes, or electors, in the Electoral College is equal to the number of seats in the House (435) plus the Senate (100), plus three from the District of Columbia—so 538.
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Appointment of Electors in the Presidential Election
In 48 states and the District of Columbia, states use a winner-take-all system. In other words, whichever presidential candidate wins the most votes in a state is allocated all of the electors from that state.
However, two states, Maine and Nebraska, allocate one elector to the candidate who won the most votes in each congressional district, and two at-large electors based on who won the overall state-wide popular vote.
The candidate who wins at least 270 Electoral College votes is the winner of the presidential election, regardless of which candidate has the largest tally of the popular vote across the country. Technically, the results of the presidential election are not certified until the members of the Electoral College from each state officially cast their votes in early December, about a month after the presidential election.
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How Do Electoral Colleges Meet?
The meeting of the electoral college is unusual. It is not a collection of people that meets at a single time in a single place; rather, on the first Monday following the second Wednesday of December, electors meet in their respective state capitals.
Electors cast ballots for president and vice president separately, although in modern times these candidates run together as a ticket. Then, after each state certifies their results, the votes go to the US Congress where they are counted on January 6 in the House of Representatives.
Traditionally, all members of the House and Senate are present in the house chamber for the accounting of electors. It is at this point that the candidate officially wins the election.
Weird Consequences of Electoral College System
The oddity of this system has a couple of weird consequences. First, the way the Electoral College works can produce what are known as “faithless electors”. That is, on a few occasions, a person selected to be a member of the Electoral College has opted not to vote for the candidate to whom they pledged.
There is no legal requirement that electors remain loyal to their intended candidate, though they may violate an oath or face a fine if they vote differently. The second odd consequence of the Electoral College is that it can result in outcomes where one candidate wins the popular vote and one wins the Electoral College majority.
This has happened five times in US history: In 1824 with the election of John Quincy Adams over the popular vote winner Andrew Jackson; in 1876 with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes over the popular vote winner Samuel Tilden; in 1888 with the election of Benjamin Harrison over popular vote winner Grover Cleveland; in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush over popular vote winner Al Gore; and in 2016 with the election of Donald J. Trump over the popular vote winner Hillary Clinton.
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The NPVIC Movement
Today, there is a movement known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which individual state legislatures have agreed to instruct their electors to support the candidate who wins the national popular vote regardless of which candidate wins the states. In any case, so far 15 states and the District of Columbia with 196 total electoral college votes have agreed to this compact.
For the compact to actually supersede the current system, it would need the support of states totaling 74 more electoral college votes, which is frankly unlikely. The last few times the popular vote differed from the electoral college winner; the Republican Party was advantaged over the Democratic Party.
Common Questions about How US Presidential Election Is Different
An Electoral College is a group of electors who are selected by the states, not the Congress nor the people. So the presidential election is done in a way that people cast their votes indirectly.
There are two weird consequences of the Electoral College system in the presidential election. First, one candidate may win the popular votes while the other wins an electoral college majority. Second, the way this system works can lead to what are called faithless electors.
The NPVIC Movement is short for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact movement. According to this compact, electors must support the candidate who wins the national popular vote. This movement makes the presidential election process move on more accurately.