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Understanding The Electoral College

October 16, 2000
Web posted at: 5:55 PM EDT (2155 GMT)

What is the Electoral College and How does it Operate?

Contrary to public belief, the Electoral College (hereafter abbreviated as "EC") does not issue diplomas to students! The EC was created by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 in order to avoid direct popular election of the President. The Framers were clearly fearful of "popular passions" or even "mobocracy." Electors in this era had significant power, using their own discretion in choosing a chief executive and vice-president. Today, the word "college" does not refer to a school, but rather an assemblage of "Electors" (they are normally chosen by their state political parties and/or state party leaders, subject to state law) who collectively cast their votes for a presidential candidate after the popular vote winner has been established in each state. So, in the modern era, Electors are merely ratifying popular vote results established six weeks earlier on election day. For example, in the 1996 presidential election, the Republican nominee Bob Dole won the most popular votes in his home state, Kansas. Therefore, he was entitled to all of the six electoral votes from that state. Six Electors who were previously pledged to support Dole, then cast their separate electoral ballots for Dole (and his running mate, Jack Kemp) in December (on the Monday following the second Wednesday of December as proscribed by federal law) in the state capital of Kansas, Topeka. Bill Clinton received a plurality (the largest number) of popular votes in the state of New York. All of that state's 33 electoral votes would subsequently be awarded to the Clinton-Gore ticket by 33 Electors in a December meeting in Albany (that state's capital). So, when Americans cast their votes on November 7, 2000, they will actually be choosing Republican, Democratic, or minority party Electors through their popular votes. (Please note that there are two state exceptions to the usual popular vote/electoral vote linkage; these are found in Maine and Nebraska, where two Electors are chosen by statewide popular vote, and the remainder of the Electors by popular vote majorities/pluralities within each congressional district.) Technically, American voters do not directly elect the president; only Electors do! The sealed electoral ballots are sent to the President of the Senate in Washington, D.C. where the official ballots from each state are counted in early January before a joint session of Congress. The presidential/vice-presidential victors are then officially certified.

Explaining The Mathematics of the EC

There are 538 total Electors (individuals) in the contemporary EC. The 538 is equal to 100 U.S. Senators plus 435 members of the House of Representatives plus 3 from the District of Columbia (compliments of the 23rd Amendment). So, a state's electoral votes are equal to its total representation in Congress (Senators plus Representatives). Accordingly, the more populous states have a greater number of electoral votes. California, containing the most people, has 54 electoral states (52 representatives + 2 U.S. Senators = 54), where, by comparison, North Dakota has 3 electoral votes (1 House Representative plus 2 U.S. senators). As you can see, the fewest number of Electors any state can have is 3 (Alaska, Delaware, Vermont, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota all share this distinction). It follows that the typical presidential candidate will want to invest most of his or her campaign resources in the largest electoral-vote states.

For any presidential nominee to be elected, he or she must obtain at least a majority of 538, or the magic number of 270. If 270 is not reached (a popular third-party candidate could conceivably siphon off enough electoral votes in the future to deny either the Republican or Democratic nominee a majority of Electors; this almost happened in 1968 when George Wallace won 46 Electoral votes), then the election's outcome is determined by Congress. The House would select the president, from the top three choices if necessary, by a majority of the states (each state delegation would have one vote, with 26 needed of the 50 for selection), and the Senate would choose a vice-president from the top two choices by majority vote. Each senator has one vote. Only two elections have gone into the House (1800 and 1824) and the Senate has not chosen a vice-president since 1836. This scenario has obviously not occurred in the modern era, although it is by no means impossible given the growing appeal of third parties and the weakening of the two major parties.

Suggested Reforms of the EC

Political pundits argue that the EC should either be abolished and/or drastically modified. First, they assert that the EC could cause a candidate who receives the most popular votes nationally, i.e., from all 50 states and District of Columbia, to lose the election. One example in American history of the EC vote not following the popular vote was Benjamin Harrison's 1888 election. In 1976, a shift of a few thousand votes in several key states would have given Gerald Ford an electoral-vote victory, but left Jimmy Carter with a popular vote plurality. For example, a candidate could win the eleven largest electoral vote states by very small popular vote margins (remember-- the EC is a "winner- take-all system", in that obtaining the most popular votes takes all of that state's electoral votes), achieve the requisite 270 electoral votes, and then lose the 39 other states, plus D.C., by huge popular vote margins. The losing candidate would then have more popular votes but not the magic "270." To prevent this, reformers suggest abolishing the EC altogether, and awarding the presidency to whichever candidate wins a national plurality of popular votes, provided that individual receives at least 40% of the total vote. If there were three or more candidates running and no one received the requisite 40%, then a run-off election would follow between the two candidates that had received the most popular votes. Detractors argue that the runoff provision would make the presidential election process too expensive and lengthy. Small states would also lose some of their political clout as well.

Second, there are those reformers who wish to keep the current EC system intact. However, to prevent the scenario described above, they would award a"bonus" sum of 102 electoral votes (2 per 50 states plus 2 from D.C.) automatically to the candidate with the most popular votes. The candidate would have to obtain 321 electoral votes (electoral votes actually won plus the bonus). If not, a run-off would ensue (a liability to critics).

Third, political experts pose the problem of the "faithless Elector." While Electors are pledged to support a particular ticket, they cannot be legally prevented from repudiating that pledge during the December balloting (Electors have changed their votes in the twentieth century presidential elections of 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1988). For example, if the final Electoral College result in a future, hypothetical election were 270 for candidate "A" and 268 for candidate "B," then one Elector, by switching his or her vote, could create a 269-269 tie, hence forcing the stalemated election to be considered by Congress. If the EC were abolished, this danger would simply disappear.

Two other reforms include the district and proportional plans. The former would be the national version of the Maine and Nebraska operations. Each state would be given two Electors elected statewide, with the remaining Electors chosen according to the popular vote in each congressional district. While this plan would represent a more faithful mirror of voter opinion, it would not eliminate the possibility of electing a minority, popular vote presidential candidate. The proportional plan would eradicate the winner-take-all feature of the EC. For example, if a Democratic candidate received 40% of the popular vote in a state with 10 electoral votes, then he or she would be entitled to four of those ten. If the Republican contender received 50%, then five electoral votes would be awarded. A third party candidate gaining 10% of the statewide popular vote would be entitled to one electoral vote. This is a fairer system since everyone receives a share of a state's electoral votes. But its great disadvantage is that it would encourage minority parties and increase the likelihood of no one candidate receiving 270 electoral votes. In short, more presidential elections might be controlled by Congress than ever before. Finally, if the House and Senate were (a) under the control of different parties and (b) also had very narrow partisan majorities in both houses, then the probability of not even being able to choose a president or vice-president would be aximized.

The Arguments of EC Supporters

Proponents of the current EC system argue against its abolition or major reform. They view the EC as unifying the nation by forcing a presidential candidate to gain support from all regions of the nation. In addition, the EC system is democratic, in that it gives heavily populated urban centers greater electoral power. Also, in a very close election, the influence of the small states remains important. Furthermore, the preservation of the two-party system (and political stability) is assured by keeping the EC intact. Under the EC, third, or splinter, parties have a very difficult time either winning the presidency or forcing the election into the House and Senate. In conclusion, the Electoral College has worked effectively, with only a few exceptions, for more than two centuries. No presidential election in over 170 years has been decided by the House of Representatives. Hence, advocates see no reason to tamper with a design that has stood the test of time, and one which is clearly superior to any suggested reform.

**A "majority" is always more than 50%. A "plurality" refers to the greatest number of popular votes, but not necessarily a majority. Note that a presidential candidate receiving either a majority or plurality of popular votes in a specific state will still win all of that state's electoral votes under the current EC arrangement.


1. How is the number 538 derived in the current Electoral College?

2. How could the EC system conceivably push the presidential election decision into Congress?

3. Why is it so difficult for third parties to win sizable numbers of electoral votes?

4. What is meant by the popular vote/electoral vote linkage?

5. What post-election events relating to the EC occur in December and January?

6. What EC reforms have been suggested? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

7. How can the EC be defended?

Lesson plan: The Electoral Process

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