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Electoral College Explained: How is the U.S. President Elected?

Have you ever wondered how the U.S. president is actually elected? Once we all cast our ballots during the General Election, aren't they just counted and isn't that how the winner is declared? If not, what happens next?

You may have heard about the Electoral College, but do you know what it actually does? And why we even have an Electoral College? In this blog, we'll explain the election process and discuss the Electoral College so you are well-informed about any presidential election, especially this year's election.

Learn More about Different Types of U.S. Elections

How Is the U.S. President Elected?

Once presidential candidates have been nominated and confirmed by their party during the Convention they appear on a ballot of a General Election. This year, the General Election will take place on November 5th, 2024, which is, as always, the first Tuesday in November. According to the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. President is elected every four years.

Learn more about the Constitutional powers of the U.S. President

Learn more about the presidential nomination process

Technically speaking, the U.S. President is not elected directly by the popular vote (voters); rather, the President is elected by the Electoral College. So, let's review the Electoral College. Spoiler alert - this does not mean that your vote doesn't count! It absolutely does. Find out how. Read on!

What's the Electoral College and Why Does it Exist?

Historically, the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College as a compromise during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The procedure of electing the chief executive, U.S. President, was one of the most controversial issues. While some delegates wanted the U.S. President to be elected by Congress, others demanded that the American people elect the President directly. What resulted is a compromise, namely the Electoral College, that elects the U.S. President for the American people based on their cast votes.

To understand the reasons for the compromise, one should know that electing a chief executive was very novel in the 1790s, and no other country directly elected its executive through the direct vote of its citizens. Furthermore, there was "a deep-rooted distrust of executive power. After all, the fledgling nation had just fought its way out from under a tyrannical king and overreaching colonial governors. They didn't want another despot on their hands."

The result of that political comprise - the Electoral College -  still governs our democratic process. The Electoral College still exists and acts as an intermediary between the American people and the government, and it elects our President.

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is a system that prescribes the creation of a temporary group of electors to officially elect the U.S. President every four years during the General Election. The number of electors equals the total number of representatives in Congress, namely 538. Each state appoints its electors, and the number of electors each state gets is based on its population. The number of electors changes over time because of population fluctuations. If you wonder how many electors your state has, you can consult the National Archives.

How Does the Electoral College Process Work?

After you cast your ballot for a presidential candidate in a General Election, your vote is counted toward your state's overall tally. Every state has its own rules that have evolved over the years. Today, in 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner gets all the electoral votes the states are entitled to. Two exceptions - Maine and Nebraska - use a proportional system to allocate the electoral votes to individual presidential candidates.

To win the election, a candidate needs at least 270 electors out of 538 electors, which represents a simple majority, about 50.2% of overall electors. On election night, a winner of the General Election is projected, but in mid-December, the members of the Electoral College meet in their states and officially cast their vote for a Presidential Candidate that the population (the voters) have elected.

The U.S. Constitution does not require electors to vote for the candidate who won the majority of the votes in their state. However, some states require the electors to vote according to the popular vote and will fine the electors, and potentially prosecute them if they don't.

Due to how the electoral votes are distributed among the states, a candidate who won the popular vote (the majority of the vote nationwide) can lose the presidency. It has happened five times: once in 2016 and 2000, respectively, and three times in the 1800s.

If no candidate wins 270 votes, the House of Representatives must decide the winner of the election. This happened twice: in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was elected by the House of Representatives, and in 1824, when John Quincy Adams became U.S. President through a similar procedure.

Should the Electoral College Be Reformed? What About the Popular Vote?

There is an ongoing debate about reforming the Electoral College. However, the reform requires a Constitutional Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

There are suggestions of abolishing the Electoral College altogether and replacing it with the national direct vote, the popular vote. In other words, a candidate who wins the most of the votes nationwide becomes U.S. President.

The reasoning for such change is that nowadays with a closely divided populace, only a handful of 'swing' states in which elections are decided by a small margin, decide the overall results of our presidential elections.

In other words, only a few hundred voters who live in the swing states practically determine the election outcome. In the words of Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who attended the Ash Center Symposium on Electoral College Reform at the Harvard Kennedy School for Democratic Governance and Innovation, "It [the Electoral College] marginalizes the vast majority of Americans...".

While we respect the perspective of Congressman Raskin, we encourage our readers to remember that the election results in each of the states also count and make a difference. The balance of power in every statehouse, and the composition of the Congress can have tremendous impact regarding which laws are passed or not, and what actions our government takes overall. It is not just the President who has power in our system of government. 

All in all, the Electoral College is a unique feature of the U.S. election process. Historically, it was created to find a common ground between the proponents and opponents of the direct popular vote. However, the Electoral College still determines the outcome of the presidential elections. While reforms have been suggested in the past, the system still rules our election process. As a U.S. citizen, your responsibility and civic duty is to vote and know how the system works so that you too, can explain it to your children, fellow citizens, and to non-U.S. citizens who may have a more direct system of electing their leaders.

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