September 17, 2012

OneVote: The Electoral College

In honor of Constitution Day, we break down how the electoral college works.

Maggie: Back in the founding fathers’ time there was no way for presidential candidates to campaign to the entire country. The framers of the Constitution were concerned that average citizens would not have enough information to make an informed decision about the president. That’s why they created the Electoral College. Instead of Americans directly electing presidents and vice presidents, our votes choose people called Electors to do the job for them.

Each state has a specific number of electors. In every state, it is the same as the number of its U.S senators: two plus the number of U.S. Representatives, which is based on each state’s population. It means states with the biggest populations get the most electoral votes, and vice versa. California has 55 electors, but Vermont and Montana each have just three. There are a total of 538 electoral votes split among all of the states. A presidential candidate needs to win a majority of electors, that is 270, to be declared the winner.

The Electoral College system allows each state to decide how its electors will vote. Most states use a winner-take-all system, where the candidate who gets the most popular votes in the state wins all of that state’s electoral votes.

On November 6th, Americans will vote for a president, and we usually know the outcome of those votes by the next day. But the presidential and vice presidential election really isn’t over until the electors get together in their state capitals in December, and cast their votes.

The electors are supposed to vote for their home state’s preferred candidate, but legally they don’t have to do that.

In most presidential elections, a candidate who wins the majority of the nation’s vote as a whole – the popular vote – will also get the majority of the electoral votes. But not always! There have been four presidents who won the election with fewer popular votes than their opponent. The most recent was in 2000. Then Vice President Al Gore actually won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. But the vote in Florida was very close. And after a legal battle that went to the Supreme Court, Florida eventually went to Mr. Bush. That gave George W. Bush the most electoral votes, making him the president.

If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution outlines that the presidential election would be determined by the House of Representatives.


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