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How the Electoral College
Works Today

The system of the Electoral College was established in Article II, Section I, of the United States Constitution, and was later modified by the 12th and 23rd Amendments, which clarified the process.

 

When U.S. citizens vote for President and Vice President every election year, ballots show the names of the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, although they are actually electing a slate of  "electors" that represent them in each state. The electors from every state combine to form the Electoral College.

 

Each state is given a set number of Electors, determined by the number of the its U.S. Congressmen. The number of Representatives in each state correlates with the state population and is amended every decade when the Census is taken.  The number of Senators is always two. (To see a list of state populations and their respective number of electoral votes click here).

Each political party with a candidate on the ballot designates their own set of Electors for each state, matching the number of Electors they appoint with the number of Electoral votes allotted to the state. This usually occurs at the State party Conventions.  Electors are typically strong and loyal supporters of their political party, but can never be a U.S. Senator or Representative.  Electors are also generally free agents, as only 29 states require electors to vote as they have pledged, and many Constitutional scholars believe those requirements would not stand in a court challenge.

After the election, the party that wins the most votes in each state appoints all of the Electors for that state. This is known as a winner-take-all or unit rule allocation of electors. Currently, the only exceptions to this are in Maine and Nebraska.

The Electors for each state cast their votes in mid-December, after which the votes are sealed and sent to the President of the Senate. Though the public votes for the party as a whole, the Electors cast individual votes on separate ballots for President and Vice President. This has become important in several elections where Electors voted for candidates other than those they were pledged to.  (See which states have legal control over their electors here ).

On January 6, the President of the U.S. Senate opens all of the sealed envelopes containing the Electoral votes and reads them aloud. To be elected as President or Vice President, a candidate must have an absolute majority (51%) of the Electoral votes for that position.

A majority is never guaranteed within the Electoral College. An election with no Electoral College majority could occur in two ways; if two candidates tie with 269 votes each or if three or more candidates receive Electoral votes.

If no Presidential candidate obtains a majority of the Electoral votes, the decision is deferred to the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives selects the President, choosing between the top three candidates, and the Senate selects the Vice President, choosing between the top two candidates.  In the House selection, each state receives only one vote and an absolute majority of the states (26) is required to elect the President. (In this situation, Washington, DC would lose the voting power given to it by the 23rd Amendment since it does not have the same Congressional representation given to the states).

However, a majority winner is not guaranteed in the Congress either. The states could feasibly split their votes equally between 2 candidates (25 state votes each) or the votes could be split between three candidates in such a way that no candidate receives a majority.

Also, since every state only gets one vote, the Representatives from each state must come to a decision on which candidate to support in the House. A state with an equal number of Representatives supporting the competing parties would not be able to cast its vote unless one Representative agreed to vote for the opposing side.

If a majority is not reached (for President) within the House by January 20 (the day the President and Vice President are sworn in), the elected Vice President serves as President until the House is able to make a decision.  If the Vice President has not been elected either, the sitting Speaker of the House serves as acting President until the Congress is able to make a decision.  If a President has been selected but no Vice President has been selected by January 20, the President then appoints the Vice President, pending approval by Congress

 

Electoral College Table of Contents


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