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How Does the Electoral College Work?

Every four years, the American public goes to the polls to cast their ballots for their favorite candidates. For most of these elections, the person with the most votes across the country wins. In the case of the presidential election, the person with the most votes may not actually win the election. Just ask Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Andrew Jackson, Samuel Tilden, and Grover Cleveland.

Most people are familiar with the names of four of these individuals, Clinton and Gore because they lost in recent history, and Jackson and Cleveland because they won the presidency at another time. How does this happen? How does a person with fewer votes than his or her opponent win an election and become president?

The Firtst Presidential Election

The First Electoral Vote in 1789: Unanimous for Washington

The First Electoral Vote in 1789: Unanimous for Washington

The Founders and the Electoral College

The reason we have never had a President Gore was the Electoral College. "What is this Electoral College?" you might ask. It was the creation of a Constitutional Convention that feared democracy.

The Founding Fathers feared the common folk. They thought that they could easily be swayed by a demagogue with a slick tongue, so they came up with the idea of the Electoral College for selecting a president (as well as appointment, and not election, of Senators). In the Electoral College, each state would receive a number of votes equal to their total representation in Congress--the number of House members + 2 Senators.

Most of the founders also feared political parties, and they wanted the best of the best to become president and vice president with no respect to their political affiliations.

In the early days of the Grand Old Republic, there was no popular vote for president. The states sent representatives to vote for their choice for president. George Washington won unanimously in the first two elections, but then politics began to come into the picture. The second president, John Adams, had his fiercest political rival, Thomas Jefferson, as his Vice President. The modern equivalent would have had John McCain as President Obama's VP. After the United States almost had a President Aaron Burr in the next election, the 12th Amendment led to separate ballots for president and vice president.

The 2008 Electoral Map

The 2008 Electoral College Map: Obama vs. McCain

The 2008 Electoral College Map: Obama vs. McCain

The Election of 1824 and a Corrupt Bargain

The 1824 presidential election was the first to actually count the popular vote. It was also one of the most controversial elections in United States history. Andrew Jackson had the most popular votes and the most electoral votes after the election, but he did not have a majority of the electoral vote. If there is no majority in the Electoral College, the election goes to the House of Representatives, where state delegations get one vote each.

Henry Clay threw his support behind John Quincy Adams, who was the next-highest vote getter. As Speaker of the House, Clay had quite a bit of clout. His support in effect gave the election to Adams, who promptly made him Secretary of State. The last three presidents had served as Secretary of State, so it looked as though Adams had his heir apparent. The Jacksonians cried foul and claimed that Adams and Clay had struck a "corrupt bargain" to win the election. Jackson ran the first really seriously organized campaign in 1828 and reversed the Adams win.

There would be no more electoral problems until 1876, when Samuel Tilden lost to Rutherford B. Hayes after the Democrats agreed to the result in exchange for the end of Reconstruction in the Compromise of '76. Benjamin Harrison won the presidency with less popular votes than his opponent, the incumbent Grover Cleveland, in 1888. Cleveland won the presidency in 1892 to be the only president in American history to serve nonconsecutive terms.

How Does the Electoral College Work Today?

Today, the Electoral College is related to the popular vote. The electoral vote in a state goes to the candidate who wins that state. With two exceptions, this is a winner-take-all proposition. Nebraska and Maine give the two votes that correspond to their Senators to the winner of the popular vote in the state. They then break up the remaining votes by congressional district. One Nebraska district voted for Barack Obama in 2008, so he one one electoral vote from Nebraska in spite of losing the state as a whole.

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There is the possibility that a "faithless elector" could change their vote at the same time. One such elector voted for Ronald Reagan over Gerald Ford in 1976 and another voted for Lloyd Bentsen instead of Michael Dukakis in 1988. In 2016, a number of electors voted against both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, and Colin Powell all received electoral votes. Neither vote affected the outcome of the election. Most states have laws on their books to prohibit faithless electors from changing their votes.

In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that states could penalize electors who refused to vote for a candidate who won their state after pledging to vote for the state's favored candidate.

A presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency today. There are 538 up for grabs in each election, one for each of the 435 Representatives and 100 Senators in the US Congress. There are also 3 electoral votes that represent Washington, DC. California has the most electoral votes with 55. Texas is second with 38. Seven states and Washington, DC, only have three electoral votes each. These states tend to be large Western states with low populations like the Dakotas and Wyoming or small Northeastern states like Delaware or Vermont.

Do Individual Votes Count?

Many people wonder if voting is worth the effort since the Electoral College is used to determine the winner of the presidential election. Individual votes do count in the election. They are the method used by the states to determine how to apportion their electoral votes. The Florida election in 2000 is a good illustration of how just a few votes can make or break a presidential campaign. If just a few more voters had gone for the Democratic candidate, we would have had a President Gore and George W. Bush would probably most famous as the former owner of the Texas Rangers (and Governor of Texas).


Chris Price (author) from USA on October 11, 2012:

Thanks, as always, for the comments. I'm glad you found the explanation clear.

Dianna Mendez on October 11, 2012:

I have always had trouble understanding this concept. Your have written the process well, hope it sticks for the coming election.

Chris Price (author) from USA on October 09, 2012:

Thank you Conservative Lady. I thought it was appropriate considering the upcoming election.

Sheila from Surprise Arizona - formerly resided in Washington State on October 09, 2012:

This is an interesting topic and you have written about it quite well. Good and thorough information. Voted Up, Interesting and Useful. Nicely done.

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