While millions of Americans will cast ballots for president in November, their votes do not directly send one of the candidates to the White House. That the selection of the president is actually done by a group called the “Electoral College.”
Americans vote for their next president on November 6. But the real presidential election takes place on December 17, and only 538 people are involved. This small group is called the Electoral College.
When the U.S. Constitution was forged in 1787, no European nation had its citizens directly elect their Head of State. Therefore, the Constitution’s writers devised a two-step system by which people would cast ballots, but their votes would be conveyed to a small group, the Electoral College, which meeting state-by-state about a month after the popular vote, actually selects the president.
“Those Electors are, in number, the Congressional delegation in each state — two for the Senate, and however many Representatives,” says American University Professor Curtis Gans. “And, they are elected by a winner-take-all in the states.”
The only exception is for two states, Nebraska and Maine, which assign Electors proportionately according to the popular vote in each Congressional district. There are also three additional Electors representing non-state entities such as the District of Columbia, for a total of 538.
A simple majority of 270 produces a president. However, if no presidential candidate comes up with that, the Constitution provides for the House of Representatives to select the next president, though that has not happened in more than 200 years.
And, while most presidential elections have one candidate winning both a majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College, an exception took place in 2000.
Democrat Al Gore won the national popular vote by over 500,000 ballots, and had clear control of 266 Electoral College votes. But his challenger, Republican George W. Bush, led by a tiny fraction in the State of Florida.
Gore launched a state ballot recount, which Bush then challenged all the way to the Supreme Court. More than a month after the election, the Court sided with Bush, effectively awarding him Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the White House.
Both parties are so entrenched in gaming the current Electoral College system that George Mason University Professor Dennis Johnson says he does not expect a change.
“The parties are kind of looking over the strategy, and looking over the map, and saying, ‘You know, for us, no, let’s keep it the way it is, winner take all,’” said Johnson.
And, Johnson adds that the Democratic Party’s domination of the nation’s cities means the Republicans, who are stronger in much less populated rural areas, are not inclined to support a change to election by direct vote.