In accordance with Article 2, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, the U.S. Electoral College meets every four years with Electors from each U.S. state to elect the President of the United States. The electoral process was clarified with the ratification of Amendment XII. See electoral college for a generic definition of the political institution.

Table of contents
1 How it works
2 A controversial system
3 The 2000 election
4 External links

How it works

Indirect election

Voting for President of the United States is an indirect election. Presidential elections take place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in years evenly divisible by four. Although ballots typically list the names of the Presidential candidates, voters within the 50 states and the District of Columbia (which is considered a state when voting for President, according to Amendment XXIII of the Constitution) actually choose electors when they vote for President. These electors in turn cast the official votes for President. Federal law says that each state's electors meet in their state capitals on the Monday following the second Wednesday of December. There, they cast their electoral votes for President and Vice President.

Once voting is complete, a record of the votes is sent to the President of the Senate, who, in the presence of both houses of Congress on the following January 6, opens them up and tallies the votes. The person with the most electoral votes for President, provided that is is an absolute majority, is to be sworn in as the new President on the following January 20 (or 21st if the 20th is a Sunday), and the person with the most electoral votes for Vice President (which must also be an absolute majority) becomes Vice President on the same date. If no person wins a majority of electoral votes for President, the House of Representatives then votes to decide who shall become the next President from among the top three candidates. Similarly, if no absolute majority is achieved by a Vice Presidential candidate, the Senate chooses from among the top two candidates.


The number of electors assigned to each state is equal to the number of Senators (always two) and Representatives that the state has in Congress, but no Senator or Representative may serve as an elector. The number of electors for the District of Columbia is equal to the number of senators and representatives for the least populous state (presently three).

In all but two states, the party that wins the most popular votes becomes that state's electors, essentially a winner-take-all. The two exceptions are the states of Maine and Nebraska, where two of the electors are chosen by the popular vote statewide, and the rest are determined by the popular vote within each Congressional district.

The electors in each state vote on separate ballots for President and Vice President, at least one of whom may not be an inhabitant of that state. This restriction is in place to prevent electors from voting solely for the "favorite sons" from their home state. To avoid this, political parties make sure to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates from different states.

In practice, the voters choose slates of electors pledged to candidates for president and vice president; in most states, the names of the electors do not appear on the ballot. Legally, the electors are free to cast their votes for anyone they choose; in practice, electors almost never vote for a candidate they are not pledged to. When this does happen, it is most often a case of the elector voting the pledged candidate for Vice-President as President and vice-versa, for example, the last time this happened was 1988 when an elector pledged to Michael Dukakis voted for Lloyd Bentsen. The last time an elector voted for the candidates of a different party was 1972 when Republican elector Roger MacBride voted for Libertarian candidates John Hospers and Theodora Nathan. This was the first electoral vote cast for a woman. Several states, but not all, have laws stating that if an elector becomes "faithless" and does not vote for the candidate to which he is pledged he can be replaced, but the constitutionality of such laws is debated and has never been tested.

There are presently 538 electoral votes up for grabs in each presidential election (100 Senators + 435 Representatives + 3 electors from the District of Columbia). Candidates must receive a majority of 270 electoral votes to become President and Vice President.


The reasons behind the creation of the Electoral College are vigorously debated. Some believe it was created to protect small states. Others believe that the Founding Fathers intended to create a system of indirect election whereby the electors would come to a carefully considered decision and then the House of Representatives would again make a careful consideration of the names presented. Others still believe the system of electing the President was given little thought beyond a desire to have George Washington as the first President.

It should be noted that under the provisions of the Constitution there is no requirement for a state to poll its voters. The state legislature can in theory appoint the electors as it likes, and until 1860, South Carolina did just this. Furthermore in 1788, the concept of "democracy" was widely seen as analogous to mob-rule, while the idea of political parties was equally frowned upon, and so the idea of a directly elected head of state would have been anathema to many. The Federalist Papers suggest that it was expected that most Presidents would be selected by the House of Representatives, and the order of the articles of Constitution, in which Congress is detail before the President, would support this.

A controversial system

As a fairly unique system and an indirect election, the Electoral College process is somewhat controversial with strong arguments from both its supporters and detractors. Supporters note that the system has lasted for over two hundred years and protects rural communities and smaller states from the interests of urban centers and large states. Detractors, on the other hand, feel that the college is an antiquated system that silences a large minority of votes in every state and is therefore undemocratic.

Supporters of the College

Supporters of the college claim that it acts as a method of amplifying the voting power of an individual voter from a specific state in a U.S. presidential election. Without the Electoral College, with the vote based on majority rule, it would be possible to win a strict majority of votes located in a few geographically restricted areas of the country.

The fear is without the college, one could campaign and win in only the 10 largest cities in the union disenfranchising (for one example) the sparsely populated mountain United States. This is illustrated by the fact that the combined total population of the 10 largest cities in the nation is (from the 1995 Statistical Abstract of the United States) almost 21.9 million. The entire population of the mountain region of the United States (et al) is 15.2 million. This effect is magnified when the analysis is broadened to the 10 largest metropolitan areas, not just the size of the largest cities proper. This would allow a candidate to focus resources, time, and political capital in winning the greatest numbers of voters in the cities. It is felt that this pressure would apply to all parties, and lead to voters in the sparsely populated West being completely ignored.

An example of a situation where the interests of a metropolitan area directly conflict with the interests of a state or region, the example of Los Angeles (pop. 3.5 million) and Colorado (pop. 3.2 million) river water is illustrative.

A direct election would focus candidates resources on large cities such as Los Angeles. The debate would naturally center on local issues that directly affected Los Angeles citizens. Los Angeles derives a great deal of their water from the Colorado river, originating in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The amount of water reserved for California impacts Colorado significantly and directly, and its use results in much contention. Supporters of the college feel that competing interests such as these are best served by compelling candidates to campaign in smaller states and address their issues. If a direct election was instituted, Colorado's voters would receive less attention, as a candidate would have to campaign over the entire state (the 8th largest) for a smaller number of votes than the geographically much smaller city of Los Angeles.

Thus, the intent of the college is to favor a candidate whose appeal is more broadly distributed on a geographical basis across the nation (see the 2000 election, below). This may lead to the rare circumstance of giving the election to a candidate who did not win a majority, or even a plurality, of the popular vote. This is seen as preferable than giving the election to one who is favored by a majority of voters but whose support is concentrated in a minority of regions or only by voters in large states.

An additional reason in favor of the Electoral College is that by having fifty-one separate elections, corruption in any single state is limited to the electoral votes of that state. Corruption is most likely to occur in a state in which there is not strong two party competition. If strong party machines in one party states could add phantom votes to a national total in close elections, the temptation to do so would be irresistible.

The Electoral College was originally crafted by the framers of the Constitution in part as a compromise between larger and smaller states, as illustrated above. To elaborate further, Montana had a population of 902,195 in 2000, and has 3 electoral votes. California had 33,871,648 people and 54 electoral votes in 2000. Thus, while California has many more electoral votes to cast, people in Montana individually have a greater influence on their state's electoral votes. California has 627,252 people per electoral vote while Montana has 300,731 people per electoral vote. While largely ignored by Presidential candidates in elections, the smaller states are not as completely irrelevant as they would be otherwise.

In the 2000 Presidential election, for example, when Al Gore finished just 5 electoral votes behind George W. Bush, a switch of electors from any state, even those as seemingly irrelevant as Montana, would have switched the outcome of the election.

Detractors of the College

Detractors of the college feel that this system is out of date and undemocratic. They advocate direct election of the President by the voters, which might sometimes produce different results than the electoral college system (for example, the 1888 and 2000 elections) though with regard to any particular election no one can say with certainty because voter turnout would be different. Supporters of direct election argue that it disenfranchises no one, since it gives everyone an equal vote, regardless of which part of the country they live in, and oppose giving disproportionately amplified voting power to voters in small states. On the contrary, the Electoral College disenfranchises those voters in every state who cast their votes for the candidate receiving fewer votes in that state. And it also partly disenfranchises voters in larger states by reducing their proportional contribution to the final election result.

Opponents of the Electoral College point out that in replacing the majority vote as the determinant of who wins the election, supporters of the Electoral College are actually endorsing minority vote as potentially preferable to majority vote. The arguments against majority vote boil down to objecting that the majority might make a decision that the minority doesn't like.

Opponents also point out that the Electoral College assumes that voters within states vote monolithically, when in fact this is not the case. Many states are often deeply divided over how to vote in a Presidential election. A key element of democracy is that voters disagree among themselves on what they consider their interests, and this happens within states as well as between states. Thus, for example, in the 2000 election, New Hampshire (a small state) gave 48% of its votes to Bush, and 47% to Gore. According to the pro-Electoral College model, as a small state, New Hampshire necessarily voted for its own local interests in supporting Bush. Yet, opponents point out, clearly the vote in that state was deeply divided as to what New Hampshire's "interests" were. Thus, opponents argue, the Electoral College is based on a flawed assumption of monolithic voting patterns based on local interests which does not bear any relationship to the actual voting process. Supporters would argue that this is mitigated by the fact that states can decide to award their electoral votes proportionately, rather than as winner-take-all, despite the fact that few currently choose to do so.

Opponents also argue that the Electoral College tends to favor a two-party system. Even when a third-party candidate receives a significant number of popular votes, he may not receive a majority in any state an may not garner even a single electoral vote, as was the case of Ross Perot in the 1992 elections.

Supporters of an electoral college with modified rules

Some argue that the biggest problems of the electoral college can be acceptably mitigated by modifying the rules by which votes are allocated. The primary proposal of this type is for states to implement a proportional vote system. Under such a system, electors would be selected in proportion to the votes cast for their candidate or party, rather than being selected to represent only the plurality vote. As an example, consider the 2000 election, in which the George Bush / Richard Cheney (Republican) and Albert Gore Jr. / Joseph Lieberman (Democrat) tickets were the primary contenders, with the Ralph Nader / Winona LaDuke (Green) ticket taking a small but noteworthy minority. In California, the approximate proportion of votes for these tickets was 41.65 percent Bush/Cheney, 53.45 percent Gore/Lieberman, and 3.82 percent Nader/LaDuke. Under the current system, all 54 electoral votes were for Gore/Lieberman. Under a simple proportional system, the votes might be distributed as 23 Bush/Cheney, 29 Gore/Lieberman, and 2 Nader/LaDuke. This breakdown is significant not only because it more closely represents the popular vote, but also because it could mitigate the spoiler effect.

Alternative systems

The Electoral College requires a majority vote in order for a victor to be declared. In the case of a hypothetical direct election with multiple candidates, the question of majority versus plurality comes into play. In many recent American presidential elections (1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, and 2000), no single candidate achieved an absolute majority of the popular vote. Some nations with direct Presidential voting, such as France, have a second round of voting if no candidate achieves a majority of votes in the first round; in the second round, the election is restricted to the two candidates with the highest number of votes. Some have argued that the French system creates problems of its own; it is possible that the initial vote becomes divided up between so many candidates that someone who is highly undesirable to most voters can make it to the second round of voting, as occurred in 2002 with the rise of candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen to the runoff election. One solution to this problem would be to implement instant runoff voting.

Political probabilities

Regardless of how opponents of the system feel, it is unlikely that the system will ever be changed. Changing the system requires amending the Constitution, and amending the Constitution requires ratification of three-fourths of the States. Smaller states would be unlikely to ratify such an amendment, as their votes would count for less under direct popular vote than under the current electoral college system.

Also, removing the system would weaken the domination of the two large political parties which control most aspects of politics in the United States, so it would be difficult to imagine either party machine backing such an alteration.

Debate over the merit of the Electoral College came to a head after the 2000 Presidential election, with some politicians, such as Senator-elect Hillary Clinton calling for a Constitutional amendment abolishing the system. Clinton conceded that the chances of enacting such a change were slim, and the idea has not been vigorously pursued since the 2000 election.

The 2000 election

To illustrate the debate, the 2000 election is useful. The various totals are:

  • Gore won 50,996,582 votes (the plurality, not majority, of total votes cast)
  • Bush won 50,456,062 votes
  • Nader won 2,858,843 votes

  • Gore won 20 states
  • Bush won 30 states (the majority of states won)

  • Gore won 677 counties
  • Bush won 2,434 counties (the majority of counties won)

  • Gore won New Mexico with 48% of the vote, slightly more than Bush also at 48% (286,783 votes to 286,417); but Gore received all the electoral votes from that state, and Bush received none.

  • Bush won New Hampshire with 48% of the vote, compared to Gore's 47% (273,135 votes to 265,853); but Bush got all the electoral votes for that state, while Gore received none.

External links

  • Math Against Tyranny - an article describing MIT researcher Alan Natapoff's analysis favoring the electoral college system
  • League of Women Voters - A web page from the League of Women Voters advocating direct election and the abolition of the electoral college