Electoral College

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The Electoral College is the official and definitive election body that selects the president of the United States. The Electoral College was established by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by popular vote. The Electoral College was a part of the compromises between large and small states necessary for achieving majority support for the Constitution developed at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Among those favoring small-state interests was Maryland’s attorney general, Luther Martin. Martin was the author of the Electoral College proposal at the Philadelphia convention. His proposal drew on the experience, philosophy, and history of Maryland’s colonial constitution, which provided for an electoral college to select its upper house.

The Constitution directs that each state legislature determine the method of selecting that state’s electors for the Electoral College. At various times state legislatures have determined that the state legislature, its districts, or the state as a whole would elect that state’s electors. Presently, electors in all states are popularly elected on a statewide, winner-take-all ticket except in Nebraska and Maine, where electors are elected by special districts.

Each state’s allotment of electors is equal to its number of House members plus two senators. The exception is District of Columbia, which has no voting members in Congress, but the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution gave the citizens of the District of Columbia at least three electoral votes. The Electoral College currently consists of 538 electors (one for each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 senators, and 3 for the District of Columbia). The decennial census is used to reapportion the number of electors allocated among the states, based upon reapportionment of the House of Representatives.

State laws vary on the appointment of electors and the selection process, the regulation of method and place of voting, and the official certification and transmission of results. The slates of electors in each state are generally chosen by the political parties. The electors in all states and the District of Columbia are elected on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The states then prepare a list of the slate of electors for the candidate who receives the most popular votes on a Certificate of Ascertainment. The electors meet in each state on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes for president and vice president. No national constitutional provision or federal law requires electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state, though some states have taken measures to direct electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their states. The electors prepare six original Certificates of Vote and annex a Certificate of Ascertainment to each one. Each Certificate of Vote lists all persons voted for as president and the number of electors voting for each person, and separately lists all persons voted for as vice president and the number of electors voting for each person.

The governor of each state prepares seven original Certificates of Ascertainment. The states send one original, along with two authenticated copies or two additional originals, to the archivist of the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) by registered mail, which must be received by the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. The archivist transmits the originals to NARA’s Office of the Federal Register (OFR), and OFR forwards one copy to each House of Congress and retains the original.

The votes are officially counted by Congress early in January. The candidate who wins a majority of the votes cast in the Electoral College is elected. Presently, a majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the president and vice president. If no presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution provides for the presidential election to be decided by the House of Representatives. The House would select the president by majority vote, choosing from the three candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes. The vote would be taken by state, with each state delegation having one vote. If no vice presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the Senate would select the vice president by majority vote, with each senator choosing from the two candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes. In both chambers the states are the primary constituency represented, as reflected by voting by state in the House and the assumed state suffrage inherently reflected in state representation in the Senate.

Despite periodic calls for reform, the safeguards of federalism designed by the Founding Fathers that are the foundation of the Electoral College remain intact. The Electoral College provides an intrinsic embodiment of federalism by combining the House (population) and Senate (states) representation methods in determination of the allocation of electors. The design of the Electoral College not only provides incentive for broad, inclusive campaigning across the breadth of the nation, but also minimizes the potential impact of any electoral irregularities by decentralizing the proportion of votes by state. The Electoral College remains one of the most significant and enduring constitutional contributions to the balance of federalism.


George Anastaplo, The Amendments to the Constitution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Allan Bloom, ed., Confronting the Constitution (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1990); M. E. Bradford, Founding Fathers, 2nd ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994); and Martin Diamond, The Founding of the Democratic Republic (Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock, 1981).

Michael W. Hail and Duane D. Milne

Last updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Constitutional Convention of 1787; Political Parties; Presidency; Reapportionment; State Legislatures