Acton Institute Powerblog

College Cramming: A refresher course on the Electoral College

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Winner-ButtonWhether the Republicans cry “rigged” or the Democrats scream “disenfranchised” we can be certain of one thing: the President won’t be elected next Tuesday. Even if there are no hanging chads or last minute court appeals, the election of the President won’t officially be decided until January 6, 2017.

It may seem strange that the presidential results won’t be final until a few days before the inauguration. But that’s the way the Founding Father’s designed the system to work.

Confused? Then it’s probably time for a brief refresher on the Electoral College:

Where did the Electoral College system come from?

Although the term Electoral College is never used in the Constitution (Article 2, Section 1, Clauses 2 and 3), the electors that choose the President at each election are traditionally called a College (meaning a group of people organized toward a common goal). The Electoral College was proposed by James Wilson at the Constitutional Convention as a compromise between those who wanted the Congress to choose the President and those who believed the election should be decided by the state legislatures. The Framers were generally in agreement that giving the people the power to directly elect the President was a bad idea.

Who decides how many electoral votes each state receives?

Each state receives an electoral vote for each U.S. Senator (two per state) plus one for each Congressional representative. Since the number of representatives is based on population, the state’s electoral votes are also based on the number of people who reside within a state. Currently, the Electoral College includes 538 electors, 535 for the total number of congressional members, and three who represent Washington, D.C. (for the purposes of the Electoral College, the District of Columbia is treated like a state).

How do these electoral votes decide who becomes president?

On the Monday following the second Wednesday in December (which falls on the 19th this year), the electors of each state meet in their respective state capitals to cast the official votes for President and Vice President. These votes are then sealed and sent to the president of the Senate (the current Vice President, Joe Biden), who will open and read the votes on January 6th in the presence of both houses of Congress. The winner is sworn into office exactly two weeks later, at noon January 20.

Who are these electors?

Since the political parties choose electors, they tend to be partisan political activists. The Constitution doesn’t have any requirements other than specifications for who cannot be an elector: a Representative or Senator, a high-ranking U.S. official in a position of “trust or profit”, or anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States.

Do the electors have to vote for the candidate who received the most votes in their state?

Nope. The elector is free to cast his vote for anyone he or she chooses. In fact, there have been times when electors have voted contrary to the will of the people—and it’s entirely Constitutional. Anyone who votes against their state’s choice is known as a “faithless elector” and essentially ruins any future they might have had with their political party.

How many electoral votes are need to win?

A Presidential candidate must receive a majority (270 of the 538 eligible) in order to win the election.

What happens if there is a tie?

What would happen if Trump and Clinton both get exactly 269 votes?  Then the House of Representative gets to elect the President. They must choose from the from the three nominees who got the most Electoral votes (Trump, Hillary, and maybe Evan McMullin if he were to win Utah). Each state gets one vote so 26 states are needed to win. And yes, McMullin could win the electoral votes of only one state and the House could still choose him to be President. (This has happened twice in our nation’s history with the House choosing Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr and John Quincy Adams being selected over Andrew Jackson.)

The Senate then elects the Vice President from the two Vice Presidential candidates with the most Electoral votes (Mike Pence or Tim Kaine, but not McMullin’s running mate, Mindy Finn). Each Senator gets one vote.

If the House can’t decide on a President by Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect (Kaine or Pence) serves as acting President until the deadlock is resolved.

So in theory we could have President Trump and Vice President Kaine, President Clinton and Vice President Pence, or President McMulling and either Vice President Kaine or Pence.

That’s crazy. Wouldn’t relying on the popular vote be a better system?

Not necessarily. The popular vote is subject to types of fraud that don’t apply to the Electoral College system (except perhaps in swing states). Political parties, for instance, have no incentive to “run up the vote” when their candidate is going to take their state anyway, so they are less likely to resort to direct fraud. On the other hand, the Electoral College makes it virtually impossible for a third-party candidate to ever be elected (this election is the closest any will likely ever get). So if you’re a Libertarian or a Green candidate you may have a reason to want to scrap the current system. On the other hand, if you like Evan McMullin, the Electoral College is your last best hope to see your candidate in the White House.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Chris Hugh

    The Electoral system creates perverse situations. For example, Clinton has no chance of winning Utah, but if her supporters vote for McMullin they can deny Trump Utah’s 6 Electoral votes.

    I hope Utah goes to McMullin. It might make the GOP give us better choices in the future, candidates who at least meet minimum standards of decency. And if by some miracle the House elects McMullin, we will have a competent President who is not a disgrace.

  • toto

    With the current system (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), a small number of people in a closely divided “battleground” state can potentially affect enough popular votes to swing all of that state’s electoral votes.

    537 votes, all in one state determined the 2000 election, when there was a lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide.

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes maximizes the incentive and opportunity for fraud, mischief, coercion, intimidation, confusion, and voter suppression. A very few people can change the national outcome by adding, changing, or suppressing a small number of votes in one closely divided battleground state. With the current system all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who receives a bare plurality of the votes in each state. The sheer magnitude of the national popular vote number, compared to individual state vote totals, is much more robust against manipulation.

    National Popular Vote would limit the benefits to be gained by fraud or voter suppression. One suppressed vote would be one less vote. One fraudulent vote would only win one vote in the return. In the current electoral system, one fraudulent vote could mean 55 electoral votes, or just enough electoral votes to win the presidency without having the most popular votes in the country.

    The closest popular-vote election count over the last 130+ years of American history (in 1960), had a nationwide margin of more than 100,000 popular votes. The closest electoral-vote election in American history (in 2000) was determined by 537 votes, all in one state, when there was a lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide.

    For a national popular vote election to be as easy to switch as 2000, it would have to be two hundred times closer than the 1960 election–and, in popular-vote terms, forty times closer than 2000 itself.

  • toto

    The National Popular Vote bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate with the most popular votes in the country


    • Rick D.

      All 11 jurisdictions that have passed it are solid blue–no red states, no battleground states.