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 vote for the slate of electors who have vowed 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 most votes 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. For instance, if both candidates come from New York, New York’s electors may vote for one of the candidates, but not both. In this hypothetical scenario, however, Delaware’s electors may vote for both New York candidates. This requirement is a holdover from early American history when one of the country’s major political fault lines divided big states from small states. The founders hoped this rule would prevent the largest states from dominating presidential elections.
- Maine and Nebraska employ a “district system” in which two at-large electors vote for the winner of the state’s popular vote and one elector votes for the popular winner in each congressional district.
Although it is not unconstitutional for electors to vote for someone other than those to whom they pledged their support, many states, as well as the District of Columbia, “bind” electors to their candidate using oaths and fines. During the nineteenth century, “faithless electors”—those who broke their pledge and voted for someone else—were rare, but not uncommon, particularly when it came to Vice Presidents. In the modern era, faithless electors are rarer still, and have never determined the outcome of a presidential election.
- 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, Congress has met in a Joint Session every four years on January 6 at 1:00 p.m. to tally votes in the Electoral College. The sitting Vice President presides over the meeting and 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 announces the name of the next President.
- With the ratification of the Twentieth 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), and Al Gore (2001) all announced that they had lost their own bid for the Presidency.
Since 1887, 3 U.S.C. 15 has set the method for objections by Members of Congress to electoral votes. During the Joint Session, lawmakers 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 for no more than two hours; each Member may speak for five minutes or less. After each house votes on whether to accept the objection, the Joint Session reconvenes and both chambers disclose their decisions. If both chambers agree to the objection, the electoral votes in question are not counted. If either chamber opposes 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 two main proposals: the popular election of the President and the election of the President by Congress.
- Prior to 1804, electors made no distinction between candidates when voting for president and vice president; the candidate with the majority of votes became President and the candidate with the second-most votes became Vice President. The Twelfth Amendment—proposed in 1803 and ratified in 1804—changed that original process, requiring electors to separate their votes and denote who they voted for as President and Vice President. See Electoral College and Indecisive Elections for more information.
- The District of Columbia has had three electors since the Twenty-third 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) when the House passed H.J. Res. 681 which would have eliminated the Electoral College altogether and replaced it with the direct election of a President and Vice President (and a run off if no candidate received more than 40 percent of the vote). The resolution cleared the House 338 to 70, 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 a single vote for one of the top three contenders from the initial election 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.