How the Electoral College Works
Deanie Lowe, former Supervisor of Elections Volusia County, Florida
The current Workings of the Electoral College are the result
of both design and experience. As it now operates...
- Each State is allocated a number of Electors equal to the
number of its U.S. Senators (always 2) plus the numbers of its U.S.
Representatives (which may change each decade according to the size of each
State's population as determined in the Census).
- The political parties (or independent candidates) in each
state submit to the State's chief election official a list of individuals
pledged to their candidate for President and equal in number to the State's
electoral vote. Usually, the major political parties select these
individuals either in their State party conventions or through appointment
by their State party leaders while third parties and independent candidates
merely designate theirs.
- Members of Congress and employees of the Federal Government
are prohibited from serving as an Elector in order to maintain the balance
between the Legislative and Executive branches of the Federal government.
- After their caucuses and primaries, the major parties
nominate their candidates for President and Vice-President in their national
conventions traditionally held in the summer preceding the election.
(Third parties and independent candidates follow different procedures
according to the individual State laws). The names of the duly nominated
candidates are then officially submitted to each State's chief election
official so that they might appear on the general election ballot.
- On the Tuesday following the first Monday of November
in years divisible by four, the people in each state cast their ballots for
the party slate of Electors representing their choice for President
and Vice-President (although as a matter of practice, general election
ballots normally say "Electors for" each set of candidates rather
than list the individual electors on each slate).
- Whichever party slate wins the most popular votes in the
State becomes that State's Electors - so that, in effect, whichever
Presidential ticket gets the most popular votes in a State wins all the
electors of that State. [The two exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska
where two Electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the remainder by
the popular vote within each Congressional district].
- On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December
(as established in federal law), each state's Electors meet in their
respective State capitals and cast their electoral votes - one for President
and one for Vice-President.
- In order to prevent Electors from voting only for 'favorite
sons" of their home state, at least one of their votes must be for a
person from outside their state (though this is seldom a problem since the
parties have consistently nominated Presidential and Vice-Presidential
candidates from different states).
- The electoral votes are then sealed and transmitted from
each state to the President of the Senate who, on the following January 6,
opens and reads them before both houses of Congress.
- The candidate for President with the most electoral votes,
provided that it is an absolute majority (over one half of the total), is
declared President. Similarly, the Vice-Presidential candidate with the
absolute majority of electoral votes is declared Vice-President.
- In the event no one obtains an absolute majority of
electoral votes for President, the U.S. House of Representatives (as the
chamber closest to the people) selects the President from among the
top three contenders with each state casting only one vote and an absolute
majority of the states being required to elect. Similarly, if no one obtains
an absolute majority for Vice-President, then the U.S. Senate makes the selection
from among the top two contenders for that office.
- At noon on January 20, the duly elected President and
Vice-President are sworn into office.
Occasionally, questions arise about what would happen if the
Presidential or vice-presidential candidate died at some point in this process.
For answers to these, as well as to a number of other 'what if' questions,
readers are advised to consult a small volume entitled After the People Vote:
Steps in Choosing the President edited by Walter Berns and published in 1983
by the American Enterprise Institute. Similarly, further details on the history
and current functioning of the Electoral College are available in the second
edition of the Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, a
real goldmine of information, maps, and statistics.
page last edited February 27, 2003