How Does the Electoral College Work?

Updated on February 4, 2020

Who Gets to Vote for President?

In the United States, there are two periods of voting for the public, and a third round only open to designated electors. Each has a distinct role in the overall election process.

The first phase are primaries, where the people vote for who they wish to represent their party. This is for the most part up to the party how they decide. The main goal is that a party unite behind one candidate, and that all their voting power is combined to win more votes than their opponent. If they split votes, and their opposing party did not, it would be very easy for the other party to overpower the results. Every vote lost to another party allows the other candidates to pull ahead. Third party candidates are often criticized for hurting the side they most identify with, by drawing away power from a candidate with a better chance to win the presidential election.

The next phase is the general election, where each of the parties has narrowed their choice down to their official candidate. All these votes will decide which party wins in each state. This is where the states become committed for the electoral college vote that officially chooses a winner.

The last component, that seals the final result of the American election, is the electoral college. Each state has a designated number of electors, based on population, with each state having a minimum of three. Despite having far more votes, California with 55 has a lower ratio of electoral power than small states that may only have 3. This is somewhat intentional, so that no state can be made obsolete, even if they have a low voting power.

Electronic Voting Machines
Electronic Voting Machines | Source

Can Electors Change Their Vote?

Each state manages the rules of their electors. While an elector may change his vote against the results of his state, there are often penalties. Political pressure is the main motivator to keep the voters committed, but there are also legal factors. A voter who goes against the result of his or her state is a "Faithless Elector".

No election has been swayed by faithless electors, even though there have been many occasions where it has occurred. In the 2000 election, an elector from Washington D.C. abstained from voting at all in protest. According to some state laws, such as Michigan, a faithless electors vote will be voided and not count at all.

A very interesting historical example is the election of 1836, where the entire state of Virginia's electoral votes where cast as faithless. All 23 electors decided not to vote at all for vice president, as a protest against Richard M. Johnson due to the revelation of a relationship with a slave he owned. They still voted for President, and ultimately their protest did not change the outcome of the election, however it was intended primarily to voice a message.

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When is the new President Chosen?

The final count of electoral votes is done by Congress in early January the year following the prior November election. The 2016 election for example will give the final declaration in 2017, and they will officially take office that same month. By this point, it is fairly known who has already won, but the electorate makes it official.

The Democratic Party uses a similar process for choosing their candidate in the primaries, by assigning delegates and super delegates similar to the electors. The electors are primarily used to represent the people, but there is some room for their free will to come into play in some areas, however unlikely.


Why Have an Electoral College?

The founding fathers chose an electoral college as a final measure of protection for states to keep their power as a part of a larger nation. If the states had no power, they would not benefit from being a member of the country, and could seek to leave.

The idea is that the large states won't simply steamroll the smaller states, even though they will carry more weight. This ensures that rural areas are as well represented as the urban areas, because the combination of small states will be just as important to win as as a few large states.

This is noticeable on an election map, where you see many of the agricultural states all voting the same, which is often opposite of the votes of large urban centers such as New York and California. There are a few states fairly well mixed, that can go either way, but also have a fair amount of votes. These are swing states, and usually get heavy attention on election cycles to try and persuade them to lean towards the candidate's side.

How Many Electoral Votes Does Each State Have?

There are a total of 538 electoral votes available, and a candidate for president must win a majority to be elected. That means they must get 270 of the total available votes, leaving only 268 for the losing party (or parties, if a third party where to win any of the electoral votes).

A state receives its allotted electors by the same calculation they are entitled to for their Congressional representatives. Each state gets at least one representative and two senators, which translates to a bare minimum of three votes for any state. The senators and representative do not cast the electoral vote, they only determine how many are given to the state.

All but two states use a winner takes all method, the exceptions are Nebraska and Maine. In these, they have divided into the state allotted votes, and some votes by district. They do not have more votes due to this, but they do not have to all vote in the same way. In any other state, whatever party gets the most votes would receive all of the electoral points.

Washington D.C. has as many electors as it would if it were a true state, with the added rule that they can never have more than the lowest state. As of 2016, this number is 3, which is tied with 7 states for lowest amount of total voting power.

Examples of State's Relative Power

Electoral Votes
Population per Vote
Replica of the Oval Office in the Clinton Presidential Library
Replica of the Oval Office in the Clinton Presidential Library | Source

How Can Someone Win the Election with Less Popular Votes?

In a somewhat rare case, a Presidential Candidate can win the election while having less overall votes. This has only happened 5 times, but due to recent elections, it has become a hot topic. It occurred in 2000 when George Bush won, while Al Gore had more overall votes. It happened in the most recent election of 2016 when Donald Trump won by 58 electoral votes, despite showing nearly 1.5 million less total votes than Hillary Clinton.

This happens due to the winning of states that have more power per voter, as displayed in the table above. The massive amount of votes won in large states, still doesn't offset the many smaller victories across the smaller states.

For this reason, some people suggest getting rid of the electoral college. Popular votes are important, but without the electoral college, the smaller states would quickly become obsolete, as the candidates would shift all their focus to high population centers. The founding fathers were concerned that this would lead to lack of representation for some states, which was quite similar to the oppression felt by the British rule. All the laws would be made and passed by groups that had absolutely no stake in the well being of the smaller areas, and they would quickly become rebellious.

It is unlikely that any state would secede in this modern era, but it is a possibility that there will be small scale local protests, drawing attention to the unfairness they feel.

Elections Won Without Winning Popular Vote

Popular Vote %
Electoral Vote %
John Quincy Adams
Rutherford B. Hayes
Benjamin Harrison
George W. Bush
Donald Trump


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