POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy

US Electoral College

The US electoral college was established by the US Constitution as the body which directly elects the US President and Vice President. When individual citizens cast their votes in US presidential elections, they aren’t actually electing the President themselves, but rather they’re voting for a candidate indirectly through the electoral college.

The Electors

The electoral college is made up of “electors” who are elected on a state-by-state basis. Each US state is allocated a certain number of electors in correlation with its population (equal to its total number of Congressional seats). The more populous the state, the greater the number of electors it receives. California, with its near 40 million inhabitants, receives the largest number of electors - 55 (equal to California’s 53 House of Reps seats + its 2 Senate seats). At the other end of the scale, the District of Columbia and a handful of small states only receive 3 electors.

The Electoral System

Electors in each state are chosen at US presidential elections using a “winner-takes-all” plurality system, also known as first past the post. This means that the party’s candidate who receives the highest number of votes in a particular state will win all electors in that state. Hence the “winner-takes-all” description. Maine and Nebraska are exceptions as they use a proportional system, where electors are distributed according to the popular vote in the state. Once chosen, the electors “pledge” to vote for either the Republican or the Democratic candidate, depending on which way their state voted. Whilst there is no federal law which binds electors to honor their pledge, there have been very few occasions when electors haven't done so (known as “faithless electors”), and they’ve never once affected the outcome of the election.

With the total number of electors being 538, successful presidential candidates require at least 270 electoral college seats to win the White House. Voting within the electoral college will then take place in the weeks following election day, despite the result being known in advance on election night. Electors cast one vote for the President and one for the Vice President.

In 2016, Republican candidate Donald Trump won the electoral college with 306 electors to defeated Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton’s 232.

See also: Presidential Election, US Vice President, Executive Branch

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