The term “Electoral College” dominated headlines on Election Day, but what does it really mean?
As Americans take in the results of the election, learn how the Electoral College was founded, how it works and how Trump’s victory came to be.
What is the Electoral College and how does it work?
When voters head to the polls, they aren’t directly picking their next president. Instead, the outcome of the vote in each state determines a slate of electors, who then make the actual choice of president and vice president.
The Electoral College is comprised of 538 electors, which equals the 435 Representatives, 100 Senators and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia. Each state’s number of electors is equal to the number of its U.S. Senators (always two) plus the number of its U.S. Representatives, which is dependent on the state’s population. Each party with a candidate on the ballot puts forth its own slate of electors, and a candidate must earn a minimum of 270 electoral votes to declare victory.
How did the Electoral College start?
Delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were divided on how to pick the nation’s president. While some pushed for the popular vote to determine the commander-in-chief, others were in favor of Congress picking the president and some believed state legislatures should decide. Instead, a compromise was reached where regular citizens would have a say, but the final decision would be made by electors.
The process for picking a president is outlined in the 12th Amendment, which was ratified in 1804, the same year the Electoral College system debuted.
Are there restrictions on who the electors can vote for?
Nearly all states have a “winner-take-all” system, which dictates that all electoral votes be awarded to the candidate who won the popular vote within the state. Although there is no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote a certain way, 26 states and the District of Columbia “bind” electors to cast their electoral votes for the candidate who won the popular vote in the state, and enforce that through a number of methods including oaths and fines.
Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that follow the congressional district method: They award two electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote and then candidates receive another vote for each congressional district they win.
Have electors ever failed to cast their votes for the candidate who won the state?
Yes. Electors who have voted against the people’s decision or abstained from voting are known as faithless electors. Although rare, the most recent so-called faithless elector cast a blank ballot in 2000, according to an official U.S. House of Representatives site. There was also one faithless elector in each of the following elections: 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1988.
Could there be a tie?
Yes. The candidate who reaches 270 Electoral College votes receives the majority and becomes president, but it is technically possible for two candidates to receive 269, and thus tie.
This unlikely situation occurred in 1800 when a tie-breaking vote by the House chose Thomas Jefferson as president over Aaron Burr, who became his vice president. (At the time, the runner-up was automatically appointed as the vice president. This changed with the passing of the 12th Amendment, which stated electors would vote separately for president and vice president.)
What happens if a tie does occur?
Under the 12th Amendment, an election in which no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes is decided in the House of Representatives, with each state delegation having one vote for president. A majority of states (26) is needed to win. The Senate then separately votes for vice president, with each senator allowed one vote. If the House of Representatives is unable to elect a president by Inauguration Day, the vice-president elect would serve as acting president until the deadlock is resolved in the House.
Can a candidate win the popular vote and still lose the presidential election?
Yes. This recently happened in 2000 to Democratic nominee Al Gore, who won the popular vote by .51% against Republican opponent George W. Bush, but ultimately lost the Electoral College 271 to 266 in an outcome eventually confirmed by the Supreme Court.
As votes continue to be counted Wednesday morning, hours after Clinton called Trump to concede, the former secretary of state clung to a narrow lead in the popular vote, 47.7%-47.5%.
Why do some people dislike the Electoral College system?
Some feel the system is unfair because the winning party in all but two states gets all the electoral votes while the losing party receives none, even if there is only a small difference in the popular vote. Critics say this negatively influences the campaign, as candidates often pay a great deal of attention to some “swing states,” or ones with more electoral votes while giving no mind to other states.
However, changing the Electoral College system would require an amendment to the Constitution, which is unlikely to occur.