Electoral College

Primary tabs

The Electoral College


The President of the United States is elected every four years, and a President may serve a maximum of two terms of office—for a total of eight years—if re-elected after the first term of office. The Vice President of the United States is elected alongside the President, and a vice presidential candidate runs for office together with a presidential candidate on a single ticket.

In the United States, the President and Vice President are not elected directly by the people; rather, they are elected indirectly through the Electoral College process. This election procedure, governed by Amendment XII of the United States Constitution, provides that citizens cast votes for “electors” who, in turn, directly elect the president and vice president. Each state is allotted a number of electors equal to the number of House Representatives and Senators from that particular state; there are a total of 538 electors, who represent “the sum of the nation’s 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia.” In order to win the election, a presidential candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes—270 electoral votes. If there is a tie, then Amendment XII of the United States Constitution provides that the members of the House of Representatives vote to elect the President and Vice President.

Mechanics of the Election Process

Before a presidential election, each political party in the United States—the two major parties being the Democratic Party and the Republican Party—select and nominate a single presidential and vice presidential candidate to represent that political party in the general election. This is done through a preliminary election process called the “presidential primary election,” in which citizens vote to select the political party’s candidates.

In the general election, each party’s candidates correspond with “their own unique slate of potential Electors.” When a citizen casts a vote for a particular party’s candidate, he/she is in fact voting for that slate of Electors. The slate of Electors that correspond with the political party receiving the majority of the votes within a particular state “become that State’s Electors -- so that, in effect, whichever presidential ticket gets the most popular votes in a State wins all of the Electors of that State.” The two exceptions are Nebraska and Maine, whose Electors vote proportionally to the votes in those states. While the chosen Electors are not constitutionally required to vote for the candidates of the party with which they are associated, state law and/or pledges from the political party restrict the Electors to voting only for that party’s candidate. In addition, such “faithless Electors” “may be subject to fines or may be disqualified for casting an invalid vote and be replaced by a substitute elector,” pursuant to state law. Faithless Electors have been rare, however, because “the political parties submit the names of their own electors, and those coveted spots are reserved for party loyalists who are unlikely to defect.”

Why Have an Electoral College?

One argument critics note is the possibility for a party’s candidates to receive the required 270 electoral votes—and thereby win the election—without having won a majority of the popular votes of the citizenry. While this is true, supporters argue in response that the Electoral College system facilitates “cohesiveness of the country,” notwithstanding even the election of such a minority President. In other words, a particular candidate may hold a popular majority of the votes solely because those votes are “heavily concentrated in a few States.” If the Electoral College did not exist, and such a candidate were to win the election, then that candidate would only be representing the interests of those specific regions, and the country could become regionally divided. Instead, the Electoral College system seeks to maintain cohesiveness by ensuring a “distribution of popular support” across the country, incentivizing “presidential candidates to pull together coalitions of states and regions, rather than to exacerbate regional differences.”