The founders struggled for months to devise a way to select the President and Vice President. The Electoral College resulted from this debate.More >
Electoral College Fast Facts
Established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is the formal body which elects the President and Vice President of the United States. Each state has as many "electors" in the Electoral College as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress, and the District of Columbia has three electors. When voters go to the polls in a Presidential election, they actually are voting for the slate of electors vowing to cast their ballots for that ticket in the Electoral College.
Most states require that all electoral votes go to the candidate who receives the plurality in that state. After state election officials certify the popular vote of each state, the winning slate of electors meet in the state capital and cast two ballots—one for Vice President and one for President. Electors cannot vote for a Presidential and Vice Presidential candidate who both hail from an elector’s home state.
- Maine and Nebraska employ a “district system” in which two at-large electors vote for the state’s popular plurality and one elector votes for each congressional district’s popular plurality. In the November 2, 2004, election, Colorado voters rejected a “proportional system” in which electors would vote proportionally based on the state’s popular vote.
The District of Columbia and 26 states “bind” their electors to vote for their promised candidate, via a number of methods including oaths and fines. In the modern era, very rarely have electors voted for someone other than for whom they pledged. Though still rare, electors more commonly changed their vote in the 19th century—particularly on the vote for Vice President. Such “faithless electors” have never decided a Presidency.
- There has been one faithless elector in each of the following elections: 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1988. A blank ballot was cast in 2000. In 2016, seven electors broke with their state on the presidential ballot and six did so on the vice presidential ballot.
Since the mid-20th century, on January 6 at 1:00 pm before a Joint Session of Congress, the Vice President opens the votes from each state in alphabetical order. He passes the votes to four tellers—two from the House and two from the Senate—who announce the results. House tellers include one Representative from each party and are appointed by the Speaker. At the end of the count, the Vice President then declares the name of the next President.
- With the ratification of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution (and starting with the 75th Congress in 1937), the electoral votes are counted before the newly sworn-in Congress, elected the previous November.
- The date of the count was changed in 1957, 1985, 1989, 1997, 2009, and 2013.
- Sitting Vice Presidents John C. Breckinridge (1861), Richard Nixon (1961), Hubert Humphrey (1969), and Al Gore (2001) all announced that they had lost their own bid for the Presidency.
Since 1887, 3 U.S.C. 15 sets the method for objections to electoral votes. During the Joint Session, Members of Congress may object to individual electoral votes or to state returns as a whole. An objection must be declared in writing and signed by at least one Representative and one Senator. In the case of an objection, the Joint Session recesses and each chamber considers the objection separately in a session which cannot last more than two hours with each Member speaking for no more than five minutes. After each house votes on whether or not to accept the objection, the Joint Session reconvenes and both chambers disclose their decisions. If they agree to the objection, the votes in question are not counted. If either chamber does not agree with the objection, the votes are counted.
- Objections to the Electoral College votes were recorded in 1969 and 2005. In both cases, the House and Senate rejected the objections and the votes in question were counted.
Amending the Process
Originally, the Electoral College provided the Constitutional Convention with a compromise between the popular election of the President and congressional selection.
- The 12th Amendment—ratified in 1804—changed the original process, allowing for separate ballots for determining the President and Vice President. See Electoral College and Indecisive Elections for more information.
- The District of Columbia has had three electors since the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961.
There have been other attempts to change the system, particularly after cases in which a candidate wins the popular vote, but loses in the Electoral College.
- Five times a candidate has won the popular vote and lost the election. Andrew Jackson in 1824 (to John Quincy Adams); Samuel Tilden in 1876 (to Rutherford B. Hayes); Grover Cleveland in 1888 (to Benjamin Harrison); Al Gore in 2000 (to George W. Bush); Hillary Clinton in 2016 (to Donald J. Trump).
The closest Congress has come to amending the Electoral College since 1804 was during the 91st Congress (1969–1971). H.J. Res. 681 proposed the direct election of a President and Vice President, requiring a run off when no candidate received more than 40 percent of the vote. The resolution passed the House in 1969, but failed to pass the Senate.
In the case of an Electoral College deadlock or if no candidate receives the majority of votes, a “contingent election” is held. The election of the President goes to the House of Representatives. Each state delegation casts one vote for one of the top three contenders to determine a winner.
- Only two Presidential elections (1800 and 1824) have been decided in the House.
- Though not officially a contingent election, in 1876, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana submitted certificates of elections for both candidates. A bipartisan commission of Representatives, Senators, and Supreme Court Justices, reviewed the ballots and awarded all three state’s electoral votes to Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, who won the presidency by a single electoral vote.
- See Electoral College and Indecisive Elections for more information on Contingent Elections.