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.

Although the form may differ a bit from state to state, the electors do cast ballots of some sort, which they are required to sign. The ballots are then sealed and transmitted from each state’s secretary of state to the president of the Senate (in this case, Al Gore) who, on the following Jan. 6, opens and reads them before both houses of the Congress. The ballots also are sent to the National Archives.

At this point, the candidate for president who wins an absolute majority (270 votes or more), is declared president. Likewise, the vice-presidential candidate with the absolute majority is declared vice president.

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

What If There’s a Tie?

In the event that no candidate obtains an absolute majority, the House of Representatives (as the chamber “closest to the people”) elects the president from among the top three contenders.

The last time this happened was in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison lost to Grover Cleveland at the polls, 48 percent to 49 percent, but won in the Electoral College. Each state delegation casts only one vote, and an absolute majority of the states is required to elect.

Similarly, if no vice-presidential candidate obtains an absolute majority, then the Senate picks from among the top two contenders for that office.

According to the Office of the Federal Register, there is no rationale behind why the House chooses from the top three candidates for president while the Senate chooses from only the top two candidates for vice president.

(Along with the Constitution itself, this process is codified in a provision in the US Code, Title III, Chapter One.)

Can Electors Support Whomever They Want?

States have tried to outlaw it, but a “faithless elector” can still follow the framers’ wishes for electoral independence rather than heed the wishes of his sponsoring party and the citizens who voted for him.

So far there is no record of anybody trying to influence an elector’s vote — but such lobbying would be hard to prevent.

Party officials have variously fumed at their inability to keep electors in line, and a handful of states have tried to make it illegal. (Wisconsin, for instance, threatens the faithless with a $1,000 fine.) But every faithless vote has been recorded as cast, and no faithless elector seems to have been prosecuted for their actions.

Though there were no faithless electors in 1992 or 1996, seven emerged between 1948 and 1988.

Source: Louis Jacobson of National Journal magazine, Federal Election Commission and the Office of the Federal Register.