TNL Guidebook: The US Electoral College

Calendar with circled November 3, Election Day in the United States of America

The United States votes for its President and Vice President through a system called the electoral college. This is often confusing and difficult to illustrate. Therefore, TNL presents a comprehensive guidebook on the topic.

Electoral College in Six Steps: 

  1. Each state is allocated some electoral votes based on its representation in congress plus 3 for Washington DC.
  2. Presidential campaigns/parties submit their list of electors for each state.
  3. On election day, (November 3rd 2020) people vote in their state (plus Washington DC) for a Presidential and Vice Presidential ticket, i.e. Trump and Pence or Biden and Harris. This determines who the 538 members of the electoral college will be for each state plus Washington DC.
  4. On December 14th 2020, members of the electoral college meet in their state capitols and cast votes for President and Vice President.
  5. On January 6th 2021, at a joint session of both Houses of Congress, the electoral college votes will be tallied. The presidential and vice-presidential nominees that receive 270 votes or more are deemed elected President and Vice President.
  6. On January 20th at noon, the President and Vice President elected by the electoral college are sworn into office.

Deep Dive

I thought voters elected the President?

This is not correct. The only people who actually elect the President are the members of the electoral college  -538 people from all 50 states plus Washington DC. The candidate with at least 270 electoral votes is selected as the President and Vice-President of the United States. This decision is regardless of how the popular vote is cast across the nation. Although, as this guide will explain, voters do have a significant influence on the results. 

Who are these electors? 

As you might guess from the fact their names are submitted either by the candidate’s party or campaign, the electors are generally party activists or known party supporters. For example, in 2016 one of the electors in New York pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton was one Bill Clinton. Electors in each state meet in their state’s capital, after election day, this year they will meet on December 14th and when gathered, they will each cast votes for the President and Vice President.

How electoral college members chosen?

First stage: Electoral college votes are allocated to each state based on its representation in Congress. That is, the number of seats a state has in the US House of Representatives plus 2 for the two Senate seats each state has. This concept can be demonstrated through the example of  Wyoming and California. Wyoming (population of about 580,000) has one US House Representative and two senators, giving it three electoral college votes. On the other hand, California, (population of approximately 39.5 million) has 55 electoral votes, as it has 53 House members and 2 senators.

Second stage: Each candidate running for President submits a list of electors. These are typically chosen in a variety of different ways by state parties. In Wyoming this year, the Trump and Biden campaigns (after state party processes) will submit a list of the three people they would like to be electors (as will the other candidates standing in the state). It can be thought of as a variation of countries using party lists, i.e. the party submits a list of candidates that it wants to represent it. 

Third stage: This is where voters come in. On election day, people vote for a Presidential and Vice Presidential ticket. In 2020, this would be Biden and Harris for the Democrats and Trump and Pence for the Republicans. There will also be Libertarian, Green and other candidates (including in some states – Kanye West!). The votes are counted and, in all states (except Maine and Nebraska), the candidate with the most votes in the state, wins all of that state’s electoral votes. It is similar to an election using first past the post. That is, the candidate in a constituency with the most votes, whether its 40%, 51% or 90% wins the seat. This is  even if a majority voted for other candidates. 

Example, in Wyoming, the candidate with the most votes in the state will win all three of Wyoming’s electoral votes meaning the three names the winning candidate’s campaign submitted will become Wyoming’s electors. To demonstrate the point, assume this year the Republican nominee Donald Trump wins the most votes in Wyoming (given Wyoming has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964). That means the three names put forward to be electors by the Trump campaign will become Wyoming’s electors. 

This process is replicated in all other states and Washington DC apart from Maine and Nebraska.

Elections Pandemic Government Coronavirus

What happens in Maine and Nebraska?

In Maine and Nebraska, the state wide winner wins 2 electoral votes and then the winner in each congressional district wins 1 electoral vote per district. 

Maine, which has 4 electoral votes, 2 are allocated to the state wide winner and 2 to the winner in each of Maine’s 2 congressional districts. On 22nd September 2020, the Maine Supreme Court confirmed that for the first time ever, Maine will used ranked choice voting (also known as preferential voting, instant run-off voting or the alternative vote) in the Presidential election. 

In short, it means in Maine voters will be able to number the presidential candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has 50%+1 of votes cast state wide or in the 2 congressional districts, the votes of candidates that finish last are reallocated to other candidates. This is done according to who their voters put as their second or third preferences (if anyone). This process continues until someone has 50%+1 of the votes remaining in the count. 

Nebraska has 5 electoral votes, 2 are allocated to the state wide winner and 3 to the winner in each of its 3 congressional districts. In Nebraska, the voting system used is winner take all or first past the post (like in 48 other states and Washington DC). 

How about Washington DC? It is not a state, why does it have electoral votes?

Washington DC is an exception in that it is not a state but still has 3 electoral votes owing to the 23rd amendment . The wording of the amendment stipulates that Washington DC cannot have more electoral votes than the least populus state, i.e. its limited to 3 votes.  (Note: this is NOT the state of Washington on the west coast, this is Washington DC, District of Columbia which is the seat of the Federal government on the east coast.)

Do electors have to vote the way their state did?

Surely the answer would be yes, right? Well as one the Presidential nominees might say, “WRONG!” Some states do have laws which require their electors to vote as directed by voters in their state, i.e. to vote as pledged. This year, in fact, the US Supreme Court upheld states rights to fine or replace electors who vote for a candidate other than the one they pledged to vote for earlier. However, in many states, there is no rule that prevents an elector from becoming what is called a “faithless elector.” Faithless electors have never changed the result of a Presidential election. However, it’s still a somewhat precarious loophole that many electors could use if they wanted to vote for whoever they prefered. 

To recap

Voters in each state and DC vote for a presidential and vice presidential ticket. In reality, they are actually voting for electors pledged to the candidate they are voting for in November. The ticket with the most votes in each state and in Nebraska’s congressional districts, and the winner as determined by ranked choice voting in Maine and its districts, win all the electoral votes in those states / districts. The winning candidate is the one with at least 270 electoral votes. So, it is possible as happened most recently in 2000 and 2016 for a candidate to win the most votes across the country but lose the election as their main rival won the electoral college.

The final stage of the process is that each state certifies its electoral votes and sends them to congress where in January (this cycle its January 6th 2021), at a joint session of both Houses, the electoral votes are counted up and if a presidential and vice presidential candidate have 270 votes or more (i.e. a majority of the 538 votes), they are declared elected President and Vice-President and will be sworn in on January 20th 2021. 

Stay Tuned

What happens if nobody gets to 270? Why was this system introduced in the first place? What are the arguments for and against the system and how might it be reformed?

Related Posts

One Comment

  • The article is well written, thus I have forwarded the link to a number of my friends.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.