What is the Electoral College and how does it work?

Several people have asked me about the Electoral College. How many Electoral Votes does each state have? How does it work? Why do we choose presidents this way? What is the history of the Electoral College?

For some reason, the Electoral College is one of the most befuddling and mystifying features of the American political system. Confusion, or at least lack of clarity, in voters' minds about the Electoral College is evidenced by the number of questions I'm asked about it. The question I'm most frequently asked this time of year is "Who is going to win?" But the clear runner-up, the question I hear almost as much, is "What's the deal with the Electoral College?"

How the Electoral College Works

Instead of voting directly for a presidential candidate (and his or her vice-presidential running mate), voters in the fifty states and the District of Columbia vote for a slate of "electors" who are pledged to vote for a particular presidential ticket (president/vice-president team). The political parties in each state select a slate of electors. The electors selected by the party of the candidate winning the most popular votes in a state become the electors for that state.

Instead of just tallying the total number of votes cast across the nation in presidential elections, votes are counted state-by-state. The winner of the popular vote in each state is awarded the electoral votes for that state. The candidate winning the majority of electoral votes wins.

Given this arrangement, it is possible to win the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. In fact, this has happened on three different occasions (for details about these elections, see "The Electoral College" in our online textbook).

One additional feature of the process that worries people every time a viable third-party candidate runs for President is that when no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the election is decided by the House of Representatives. In such a case, the House delegations from each state would have one vote each. The candidate with the support of the most House delegations would be declared the winner. Thomas Jefferson was elected not by popular vote or by winning a majority of electoral votes--he was selected by the House of Representatives (for more about the role of the House of Representatives in deciding presidential elections, see "The Electoral College" in our online textbook).

How Many Electoral Votes Does Each State Have?

Each state has a number of electoral votes equal to its number of Senators (two) plus its number of members in the United States House of Representatives (depends on state population). The table below lists each state and its number of electoral votes. Notice the District of Columbia has three electoral votes although it does not send official voting members to the U.S. Senate or House. These three electoral votes were granted to Washington, D.C. by the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution.

Electoral Votes by State 2001 - 2010
State
Votes
State
Votes
State
Votes
State
Votes
Alaska
3
Nebraska
5
South Carolina
8
Virginia
13
Delaware
3
Nevada
5
Alabama
9
Georgia
15
Montana
3
New Mexico
5
Colorado
9
North Carolina
15
North Dakota
3
Utah
5
Louisiana
9
New Jersey
15
South Dakota
3
West Virginia
5
Arizona
10
Michigan
17
Vermont
3
Arkansas
6
Maryland
10
Ohio
20
Washington, D.C.
3
Kansas
6
Minnesota
10
Illinois
21
Wyoming
3
Mississippi
6
Wisconsin
10
Pennsylvania
21
Hawaii
4
Connecticut
7
Missouri
11
Florida
27
Idaho
4
Iowa
7
Tennessee
11
New York
31
Maine
4
Oklahoma
7
Washington
11
Texas
34
New Hampshire
4
Oregon
7
Indiana
11
California
55
Rhode Island
4
Kentucky
8
Massachusetts
12
   


Why Do We Elect Presidents This Way?

There are two primary reasons the Founders chose to select presidents via the electoral college instead of by direct, popular voting. The first reason was their lack of trust in the judgment of the people. They were fearful that a well-spoken but not well-intentioned individual could flatter the people and win their support. They hoped that a secondary body, such as the Electoral College, would not be susceptible to such attempts at manipulation. This reason for the Electoral College is virtually meaningless with changes that have "bound" electors to cast their votes for the candidate who wins the majority of the popular vote in each state.

The second reason for choosing presidents by electoral votes instead of by popular vote is to give the states a voice in the presidential election. The principle of federalism was and is a critical feature of the American political system. By placing states in this important position in the selection of the country's leader, the Framers sought to maintain the position of states as important entities in the American political system.

Imagine that presidential elections were not decided state-by-state, but rather by a nationwide popular vote. The significance of states and the candidates' competition for support in key, "swing" states would disappear. Candidates would be inclined to simply run nationwide ad campaigns and visit large population centers.

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