Learn more about the complicated process for determining the next president

By Stephanie Petit and Diana Pearl
Updated December 19, 2016 04:13 PM

The term “Electoral College” dominated headlines on Election Day, but what does it really mean?

Donald Trump edged out opponent Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election by winning 306 electoral votes to the Democratic nominee’s 232, according to The New York Times.

As electors cast their votes across the country Monday, learn how the body was founded, how it works and what happens if Trump does not get the crucial 270 votes for victory.

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 three 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.

This means that an individual vote in a less populated state arguably carries more weight than one in a larger state. For example, the state of Wyoming, which has just shy of 500,000 residents, has three electors. The state of New York has nearly 20 million residents — 40 times the number of Wyoming — but just 29 electors.

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.

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton outlined the reason for the Electoral College in the Federalist Papers, written in 1788. The college, he wrote, exists to prevent someone who is unfit to be president from taking office.

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

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.

This year, a few electors have announced that they’ll go rogue and vote for someone other than the candidate their state’s votes technically belong to. Republican Texas elector Christopher Suprun, technically bound to vote for Trump, has said he will be casting his vote for another candidate. A Maine elector announced he’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders. Two Washington state electors sued to try and cast their votes not for state winner Clinton, but an alternative Republican candidate who could defeat Trump. Other electors indicated their interest in doing something similar, even if their numbers aren’t expected to be high enough to sway the outcome.

Could there be a tie?

Technically, 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 — and this year, that was the case. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million.

This also 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.

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. States like California or Alabama, which nearly always go to one particular party (the Democratic party for California, Republican for Alabama) hardly get any attention or visits from the candidates during the general election.

Other critics say it doesn’t accurately represent the voice of the people, considering that a candidate can lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral College. It’s happened five times in history, but twice in the past 16 years.

Could we get rid of it?

In the aftermath of the 2016 especially, there’s been more and more calls to dismantle the Electoral College. For the second time in just five elections, the winner of the popular vote will not be the one moving into the White House.

“This is a real warning sign for our democracy.” George Edwards III, a legal expert at Texas A&M University, told Politico. “The irony is that electors exercising discretion is exactly what the Constitution and the framers envisioned. But it raises some really serious questions about the modern notion of democracy.”

Democratic California Senator Barbara Boxer even introduced a bill that would abolish the college in the weeks after Election Day.

Ironically, Trump himself once tweeted that the Electoral College was a “disaster for democracy” back in 2012.

Disdain for and eagerness to dismantle the Electoral College is entrenched in American history. There’s been at least 700 amendments proposed to change or get rid of it, per FairVote.

Even Thomas Jefferson himself was against it, reportedly calling the Electoral College “the most dangerous blot in our constitution.”

Abolishing the Electoral College, however, would be very difficult. It requires an amendment to the Constitution. which not only needs to pass through both the Senate and the House, but also needs to be ratified by three-quarters of the states. It’s been nearly 25 years since the last time an amendment to the Constitution — the 27th — was ratified.

So while it’s a long shot, especially with the winning party controlling Congress and the White House, 2016 is only going to provide the effort with more momentum.