How Does the Electoral College Work?

In the event that no one obtains an absolute majority of electoral votes for president, the U.S. House of Representatives selects the president from among the top three contenders, with each state casting only one vote and an absolute majority of the states being required to elect. This has happened twice in American history. If it were to happen this cycle, President Bush would likely win re-election; a majority of the 50 congressional delegations are dominated by Republicans. Similarly, if no one obtains an absolute majority for vice president, then the U.S. Senate makes the selection from among the top two contenders for that office.

When are the new president and vice president sworn in?

At noon on Jan. 20, the duly elected president and vice president are sworn into office.

What are the arguments in favor of the Electoral College?

A common argument in favor of the Electoral College is that it forces the candidates to pay more attention to less-populated states that they would otherwise ignore. Those who are proponents of the two-party system claim the winner-takes-all result of the Electoral College helps avoid political instability and deadlock that would arise should the system be broken. Some argue the Electoral College system gives power to minority groups by allowing a relatively small number of voters in each state to make a difference in determining which candidate gets that state's electoral votes. Others argue the Electoral College maintains the federal system of government, which was designed to reserve such important political powers to the states as making a choice for the presidency and vice presidency.

What are the arguments against the Electoral College?

Some argue against the (mostly) winner-takes-all system allows for a candidate who loses the popular vote (as happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000) to win the presidency. Opponents claim it discourages voter turnout by making people feel their vote does not make a difference in noncompetitive states. Some say it violates the "one-person, one-vote" ideal since each state has a minimum of three electors, regardless of its population. This gives residents of the smallest states, which based on their population might otherwise be entitled to just one or two electors, more influence than residents of larger states. The current system does not require electors to vote the way they are pledged. This is an argument of lesser consequence, as the situation rarely happens, but there is, in fact, nothing preventing electors from voting for whom they choose.

Compiled by David Chalian.

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