Study Notes

Electoral College

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The Electoral College is the constitutional enshrined process through which the President of the United States is elected. It is a process and not an actual place. It was devised during the framing of the Constitution in order to provide a method of indirect election for the Office of President. In effect voters in the US never vote for the President but cast their ballots instructing electors to do so on their behalf.

Constitutional Provision

The Electoral College is laid down in the US Constitution throughout Article II Section 1. It outlines the designation of how many Electoral College Votes each state is to receive, when the College will cast their ballots for President and how the winner will be picked.

Representation in the College.

It is electors from the states that participate in the Electoral College on behalf of their constituents. Each state is allocated a number of Electoral College Votes equal to its congressional delegation i.e. one electoral college vote for every member of the House of Representatives, and one for each Senator. This means that the smallest states in terms of population will always have three Electoral College Votes. The District of Columbia is represented in the Electoral College and will always have the same number of votes as the least populous state, which is Wyoming. The allocation of votes is not proportional to DC’s population, so even though the population of DC is greater than that of Wyoming, it still has the same among of Electoral College Votes.

Path to the Presidency

Upon election day, voters will cast their ballot for President as an instruction to the electors for their state. At the close of polls, the total votes are totalled up and the person with the most votes is declared the winner in that state and the Electoral College Votes are added to that candidates total nationally. For example, should the Democratic nominee win the popular vote in Florida then they would receive the 29 Electoral College Votes that Florida has. This process is true in all but two states namely Maine and Nebraska.

Maine and Nebraska allocate their Electoral College Votes through a process known as the Congressional District Method. Under this method, an electoral college vote is allocated for every congressional district that they win. The candidate who has won the most congressional districts in that state is then awarded the two remaining Electoral College Votes.

There are 538 Electoral College votes that are up for grabs in a Presidential election which means that candidates will need at least 270 to win the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. However, as the number of votes in the Electoral College is even, it can deadlock at 269 votes. If this is the case the House of Representatives will choose the President, and the Senate will choose the Vice President.

Faithless Electors

Once the results of the election are known, states will send electors to Washington DC who will cast their votes for the candidate which won their state. Some states will attach penalties or fines to those electors who do not vote for the candidate who won their state. However, despite this some electors will vote for other candidates. Typically they will not vote for the opposite party that their state voted for, but may vote for former Presidents, or other candidates who didn’t become that parties eventual Presidential nominee. If an elector does this they are known as Faithless electors.

Changes to the Electoral College

The Electoral College has not stayed the same since it was first devised during the drafting of the Constitution. It has been changed a grand total of twice. The first change to the system happened in 1804 and allowed the Vice President to be elected alongside the President, to prevent the Vice President being the person who simply came second in the election. Furthermore in 1961 the Electoral College was the subject of an amendment to the Constitution which introduced Electoral College representation for the District of Columbia. They are allocated the same number of Electoral College Votes as the least populous state. This became the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution

Problems with the Electoral College

The Electoral College is criticised for a number of reasons

  • It can hand victory to someone who loses the popular vote and this has happened three times in US History, most recently in 2000 in Bush v Gore.
  • If you look at the allocation of electoral college votes according to population, then the smaller states such as Wyoming are greatly over represented in the Electoral College, whilst those larger states such as Florida or California are underrepresented.

Further information on the Electoral College

How the Electoral College Works - CGP Grey
The Trouble with the Electoral College - CGP Grey
What if the Electoral College is Tied? - CGP Grey

© 2002-2024 Tutor2u Limited. Company Reg no: 04489574. VAT reg no 816865400.