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Civics 101: The Electoral College

This time next month, the Electoral College may be all anyone can talk about. Whether you believe it is a brilliant, sensible, and prescient design by our Founding Fathers, or an outdated concept that has cheated the American people out of a popularly-elected President and Vice President, it is nearly time to debate this vastly misunderstood government system once again.


When you cast your vote for the President of the United States, you’re really not directly put- ting him or her into office. The Founding Fathers established a process that created a compro- mise between the popular vote and a vote by Congress. You help choose your state’s electors when you vote for President because when you vote for your candidate you are actually voting for your candidate’s electors.

There are 538 electors, one for each of the 100 Senators and 438 Representatives. Each state has one vote for each of its members in Congress, which is determined by census population. That   is why places like California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), and Florida (29) are so popular with on the campaign trail; winning those four states gets a candidate more than half way to the minimum 270 votes needed to win it all.

Each candidate has a specific group of electors in each state, chosen by the party at their conventions, or by a vote of the party’s central committee. They may be state elected officials, party leaders, or some who have affiliations with the Presidential candidate.

There is no Constitutional mandate or law that compels Electors to vote according to the popular results of their states, although some states do require that the party may request a pledge from its Electors to vote for the party nominee or be subject to fines or disqualifications if they do not, but it is rare that an elector does not vote as pledged.

In December of an election year, and after the popular vote has been certified, the Electors meet to cast their votes. If the popular vote in a state went to the Republican candidate, the Elec- tors for that party cast their votes for the national election. Ditto for the Democratic state winners. All but two states have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all of the Electors to the winner. Maine and Nebraska allow for a proportional representation; i.e., if 60 percent of the popular vote goes to one candidate, that candidate gets 60 percent of the Electors.

Electoral votes are counted during a joint session of Congress on January 6th. The Vice President, as President of the Senate, presides over the count and officially declares the winner. The President-elect is than sworn in on January 20th.

Incidentally, coloring states red and blue has been standard practice only in this century, thanks to major news network use of the colors to identify state winners. If an independent or third-party candidate were to win a state, most networks agree to color that state yellow.

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