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How Does the United States Electoral College Work?

The United States Electoral College

Once every four years, citizens of the United States who are legal adults bear the great responsibility of taking part in the election of the United States President and Vice President, which determines the welfare of the nation and its citizens for the following four years. The Electoral College is the system by which the United States is governed regarding the election of the United States President and Vice President. This election process does not appear in the U.S. Constitution but was established by The Founding Fathers to achieve a mutual interest of the electoral votes from the Congress and the election of the President and Vice President based on the popular vote of qualified citizens.

The Office of the Federal Register

On behalf of the Archivist of the United States and as a part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) initiates the coordination of certain functions of the Electoral College among the States and Congress, wherein it serves as an intermediary. In this capacity, the OFR is responsible for reviewing the Certificates of Ascertainment and Vote before delivering it to the Congress for acknowledgment as evidence of the official State action in preparation for the formal counting of the electoral votes the Congress. Additionally, the Office of the Federal Register creates physical Certificates and also uploads evidence on the NARA website for public inspection, wherein the official Certificates become a part of the National Archives collection a year after the election. The OFR has no role in appointing electors, as well as and is in no way in contact with the electors.

The Election Process

On election day, citizens of the United States that are 18 years of age or above get a chance to vote, once, for a president and vice president. These votes then proceed to the State to be counted, wherein the candidate with the most statewide votes is declared as the candidate which the specific state represents. The whole United States nation participates in this process. The nation is divided into different states; however, since different U.S. states vary in the number of authorized voters, each State is also represented with a different number of electors signifying each individual’s votes properly. As such, because the population size is represented by the number of districts in the state, the number of electors per state is now based on the number of districts the state has and the two United States Senators that will also vote as a part of the state. For example, North Carolina with 13 districts is represented by 15 electors, whereas 55 electors represent California with 53 districts. This is why candidates might emphasize larger, populous states, as they effectively increase the number of electors voting for them.

The Electoral College consists of 538 electors, which implies that a majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President. Once a candidate has reached the majority of 270 electoral votes, that candidate has now declared the winner and the United States president. That said, one single vote helps the state choose a single candidate, wherein the candidate receives, in full, the number of electors from your state as a result. The general election is held every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The elected President is sworn in as the next President of the United States on the following January 20th.

Electoral Votes

With 538 electors, a majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President. The number of electors in a state has the same proportion as the Members in the state’s Congressional delegation, wherein there is one for each Member in the House of Representatives and two Senators of the state. Furthermore, each state has a group of electors, known as slate, representing each candidate running for Presidency in the United States. Varying between states, the slates are generally chosen by the political party representing each state’s candidates. The processes and responsibilities of electors also vary among the different states.

Though qualifications for being an elector is different for each state, the United States Constitution contains a few provisions dictating that no Senator, Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed as an elector. Along with this, the 14th Amendment, effective during the post-Civil War era, also dictates that the state officials who have previously engaged or are currently engaging in a violent uprising and rebellion against the United States government, including those who have given aid and comfort to its enemies are all declared not qualified to be serving as electors. The Certificates of Ascertainment of each state shall confirm the names of the appointed electors representing the state, which shall be sufficient to establish the electors’ qualifications in general cases.

A state’s electors are chosen differently from state to state. Still, they are done through a two-part process – the first being that the political parties in each state shall come up with slates and a list of potential electors prior to the general election. The second part of the process involves the voters selecting their state’s Electors by casting their ballots.

In choosing electors by the political parties in each state, a nomination is generally carried out during the state party conventions to come up with a list of potential electors or through casting votes by the state party’s central committee. This process varies for each state party, as each political party shall bring together a unique slate of potential electors for their Presidential candidate. In most cases, political parties are keen on selecting a slate based on the individual’s service and dedication to the political party. They are also particular about the individual’s personal or political affiliation with the party’s Presidential candidate. These selected slate may be state elected officials, state party leaders, or other individuals recognized for their work and loyalty to the political party.

During the general election, the second part of selecting electors begins as the voters of each state cast their votes for the Presidential candidate of their choice through voting to select their state’s electors. As it is in the first process, the second process for each state also varies.

The General Election

Every four years, on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a general election is held to vote for a Presidential candidate. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, most states proceed with a “winner-take-all” system, which means that the Presidential candidate who won the state by the popular vote shall be awarded all the state’s electors.

Following the general election, the Governor of each state shall prepare a Certificate of Ascertainment, which includes a list of the names of all the selected individuals on the slates representing each presidential candidate, the number of votes each individual received, and the appointed individuals to represent the state as an elector. These selected electors then attend a meeting on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, subsequent to the general election. In this event, the electors meet in their respective States to cast their votes for the respective President and Vice President, as a partial representation of the voters’ choice. The electoral votes are then sent to the Congress through each state’s Certificate of Vote. They are given to the NARA after they have been acknowledged and counted in the tally as part of the Presidential election’s official records.

On the 6th of January the following year, each state’s electoral votes are counted during a joint session of Congress, where members of the House and Senate meet in the House Chamber. This proceeding is led by the Vice President – as President of the Senate, announces the vote tally, and declares the newly elected President and Vice President of the United States. Subsequently, the President-elect takes the oath of office on January 20th and is now sworn in as the United States president.

Despite having electoral votes as the final basis to determine the President of the United States, each vote cast by authorized voters helps determine each state’s electors, which in turn influences the electors’ choice in the meeting of electors the following month. Under federal law, it is still possible to contest and object to a state’s electoral vote through the President of the Senate during the counting of electoral votes in January with the Congress. In such cases, the objection must be made in writing, signed by at least one Senator, and a member of the House of Representatives. Additionally, the Senate and House of Representatives shall debate the objection separately later on, with a time limit of two hours. Following the debate, both the Senate and the House of Representatives shall reach a mutual decision to reject the votes. Otherwise, the votes shall remain to be counted.

The Candidate

In such cases that the President-elect fails to qualify before the inauguration, dies, or becomes incapacitated between the counting of electoral votes in the Congress and the inauguration, the Vice President shall become the President, according to Section 3 of the 20th Amendment. If no presidential candidate receives a majority of 270 electoral votes, the presidential election shall move to Congress, rejecting the Electoral College. In Congress, a candidate must receive at least 51 votes to be officially elected as President of the United States, and the House of Representatives elects the President from the three presidential candidates who received the most electoral votes in the Electoral College. If, in such cases where the House of Representatives is still unable to elect a president by Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect of the United States shall serve as the acting President of the United States until the draw has been resolved in the House.

For cases where two candidates receive a tie in the state’s popular vote, or if there was an existing dispute as to the winner, a recount should be made to ensure that a correct number of votes is presented. If the deadlock has not been resolved even after the recounting of votes, the candidates shall put their names on individual pieces of paper and place them in a bowl. A neutral third party shall subsequently pull a paper out of the bowl, which now contains the candidate’s name who shall be declared as the President of the United States.

Authorized Voters

Special cases including Uniformed Services such as the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy, Marines, Merchant Marine, as well as the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, may cast their vote through the Department of Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program; however, the Electoral College system does not provide for residents of the United States Territories – American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands.

Electoral Votes Allocation

Each state is allocated with electoral votes based on the Census, where a state receives an amount of electoral vote equal to the sum of the number of Congressional districts in the state and two votes for its United States Senators. Under the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution, the District of Columbia is allocated three electors and is considered as a state for the sole purpose of the Electoral College. Below is a list of the current allocations for each state based on the 2010 Census, which are effective for 2012, 2016, and 2020 Presidential Elections:

State – Allocated Number of Electoral Votes

Alabama – 9

Alaska – 3

Arizona – 11

Arkansas – 6

California – 55

Colorado – 9

Connecticut – 7

Delaware – 3

District of Columbia – 3

Florida – 29

Georgia – 16

Hawaii – 4

Idaho – 4

Illinois – 20

Indiana – 11

Iowa – 6

Kansas – 6

Kentucky – 8

Louisiana – 8

Maine – 4

Maryland – 10

Massachusetts – 11

Michigan – 16

Minnesota – 10

Mississippi – 6

Missouri – 10

Montana – 3

Nebraska – 5

Nevada – 6

New Hampshire – 4

New Jersey – 14

New Mexico – 5

New York – 29

North Carolina – 15

North Dakota – 3

Ohio – 18

Oklahoma – 7

Oregon – 7

Pennsylvania – 20

Rhode Island – 4

South Carolina – 9

South Dakota – 3

Tennessee – 11

Texas – 38

Utah – 6

Vermont – 3

Virginia – 13

Washington – 12

West Virginia – 5

Wisconsin – 10

Wyoming – 3

History of the Electoral College

The Founding Fathers established the Electoral College in the Constitution in order to accommodate both the election of President of the United States through the vote in Congress and election by popular vote among the qualified and authorized citizen voters. The Electoral College defines the process of selecting the to-be President of the United States; however, the term itself does not appear in the Constitution. To include the term “electoral college” in the institution requires a constitutional amendment to change the system. Despite many different proposals submitted to alter the Presidential election process, there has not been an offer that was passed by Congress to the States for ratification, which shall be acknowledged as a Constitutional amendment. Other ratifications, including the change in the 12th Amendment, the use of the popular vote to select individuals to be appointed as electors by the states, as well as the expansion of voting rights have all done a substantial change in the process, even though there has not been a shift from on Presidential election process to another.

To learn more about the Electoral College, check the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) website.

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