Electoral College FAQ

Think you’re electing the next president on Election Day? Think again. That task is left to the obscure but powerful electoral college.

When voters cast their ballots, they’re actually electing the 538 members of the Electoral College, the ones who will really cast votes for Al Gore and George W. Bush. It takes 270 of their votes to determine the next president.

Still confused? Read on for answers to more frequently asked questions about the Electoral College.

Why an Electoral College?

In a nutshell, the founding fathers didn’t trust us. They didn’t fear our stupidity so much as the limited ability of our forbears to learn about candidates outside their home region. Complicating matters further, a large bloc of smaller states sought to safeguard their powers within the new federal union.

At one point, the founding fathers approved a system whereby Congress would choose the president — something akin to Britain’s parliamentary system, minus the king. But that crumbled after fears that uncouth deals might be struck by legislators in private, so other proposals were considered. Direct election by the people was rejected, as was election by a vote of the governors, voting by electors chosen by each state’s legislators and, loopiest of all, voting by a special cadre of congressmen chosen by lot.

Who Are Electors?

The Constitution bans any “person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States” from becoming an elector. (State officials, such as governors or state legislators, are allowed.)

Beyond that, anyone can do it. There are no age restrictions, no residency requirement, not even a citizenship test. In theory, there’s nothing preventing a newborn from Norway from accepting a gig as a Nevada elector.

In practice, however, being an elector is a political plum carefully doled out by state party officials. Usually, the major political parties select these individuals either at their state conventions or through appointment by state party leaders, while third parties and independent candidates simply designate theirs.

How Are Votes Doled Out?

Every state gets one electoral vote for each of its two U.S. senators, and one vote per U.S. representative.

Because there is a fixed number of senators (100) and representatives (435), the number of electoral votes also is fixed at 538 — with the District of Columbia getting three electoral votes (the territories have none).

Therefore, the minimum number of electoral votes a state can have is three; the most of any state is California’s current 54 (two senators plus 52 representatives).

With a total of 538 electoral votes, 270 are needed for a majority to win the White House.

How Do They Vote?

On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December (this year: Monday, Dec. 18), each state’s electors meet in their respective state capitals, where each casts one electoral vote for president and one for vice president.

To prevent electors from voting only for “favorite sons” of their home state, each elector must cast at least one of their votes for a person from outside their state. According to the Office of the Federal Register, this has never been a problem because no winning presidential candidate has ever chosen a running mate from his home state. However, it would have posed a problem for the Bush-Cheney ticket had Bush won and Cheney had not switched his voter registration from Texas to Wyoming.

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