What Is The Electoral College? How It Works And Why It Matters

There are few founding institutions in the United States less well-understood than the Electoral College, the somewhat mysterious body of officials who formally elect the nation's president every four years. You thought you would be voting directly for a presidential candidate? "One man, one vote," as they say? It's not that simple.

Instead of setting up a presidential election system through direct democracy, the nation's founders established the Electoral College in part to ensure the entire nation has a more equal say in the choosing of a national president. In a time when the states were more autonomous and the federal government didn't have as much power as it does today, the framers wanted to offset the chance that a single populous state or region would put forth a "favorite son" candidate that would almost exclusively represent the contender's home state and disregard the needs of other parts of the country.

What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors who cast votes to decide the President and Vice-President of the United States. When voters go to the polls, they will be choosing which candidate receives their state’s electors. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes (270) wins the Presidency. The number 538 is the sum of the nation’s 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia.

How does the Electoral College work?
Every four years, voters go to the polls and select a candidate for President and Vice-President. In all but two states, the candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state wins that state’s electoral votes. In Nebraska and Maine, electoral votes are assigned by proportional representation, meaning that the top vote-getter in those states wins two electoral votes (for the two Senators) while the remaining electoral votes are allocated congressional district by congressional district. These rules make it possible for both candidates to receive electoral votes from Nebraska and Maine, unlike the winner-take-all system in the other 48 states.

How are the electors selected?
This process varies from state to state. Usually, political parties nominate electors at their state conventions. Sometimes that process occurs by a vote of the party’s central committee. The electors are usually state-elected officials, party leaders, or people with a strong affiliation with the Presidential candidates.

Do electors have to vote for their party’s candidate?

Neither the Constitution nor Federal election laws compel electors to vote for their party’s candidate. That said, twenty-seven states have laws on the books that require electors to vote for their party’s candidate if that candidate gets a majority of the state’s popular vote. In 24 states, no such laws apply, but common practice is for electors to vote for their party’s nominee.

What happens if no one gets a majority of Electoral College votes?
If no one gets a majority of electoral votes, the election is thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives. The top three contenders face off with each state casting one vote. Whoever wins a majority of states wins the election. The process is the same for the Vice Presidency, except that the U.S. Senate makes that selection.

Can you lose the popular vote and win the electoral college vote?
Yes, a candidate could lose the popular vote and win the electoral college vote. This happened to George W. Bush in 2000, who lost the popular vote to Al Gore by .51% but won the electoral college 271 to 266 and also Donald Trump with  47% in 2016 lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton with 48%  but won the electoral college.

Why does the Electoral College matter?
The Electoral College determines the President and Vice-President of the United States. The Electoral College system also distinguishes the United States from other systems where the highest vote-getter automatically wins. This so-called “indirect election” process has been the subject of criticism and attempted reform, though proponents of it maintain that it ensures the rights of smaller states and stands as an important piece of American federalist democracy.

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