How the Electoral College Works: A Concise Guide

The Electoral College has been under heavy scrutiny in recent news. In order to understand the discussions, Alaska Policy Forum has compiled a concise guide to the Electoral College: what it is, how it works, and its importance, as well as its critiques, and how it differs from other methods of electing a President.


What is the Electoral College, and how does it work?

At its most basic level, the Electoral College is a group of representatives chosen to officially vote for President of the United States. Through various methods, each state chooses members of the Electoral College, also known as electors. In total, the United States has 538 electors, which is the same as the total number of members of the U.S. House and Senate combined and three for DC, to make apportionment of electors simple. To become President, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes, which currently stands at 270.

With the Electoral College, each citizen’s vote is actually for a candidate’s electors in that state, not the candidate himself. When a candidate wins the popular vote, it means that his electors won, and will go on to represent the state and vote for that candidate as part of the Electoral College.


What does the Constitution say about electing the President?

The Constitution largely leaves the details of the Presidential election up to Congress and individual states to decide. For example, Congress sets the date of Election Day (the first Tuesday after November 1st) and the day that electors cast their electoral votes (December 14 in 2020). Congress also counts the electoral votes and certifies the official outcome.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution says only that electors may not be a Senator or Representative and doesn’t prescribe how states choose their electors:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

In addition, the Constitution’s Twelfth Amendment includes a few safeguards to reduce corruption by requiring electors to meet in their own states so that the Electoral College never meets in its entirety. The Twelfth Amendment also includes contingencies if the Electoral College fails to achieve a majority of 270 votes; the election is then given to the House of Representatives to vote on and decide.


How are the number of electoral votes per state decided?

Each state has a number of electors equal to their total number of senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress. This means that when the Census is conducted every ten years, the number of electors per state change as seats in Congress are reapportioned; the 2024 presidential election will reflect population data from the 2020 Census. However, every state is guaranteed at least three electors regardless of the share of overall population comprised, since they are guaranteed two senators and one representative in Congress. Washington, DC is allocated three electors in the Electoral College as well.

Alaska currently receives three electoral votes, equal to the number of senators and representatives we have. Although reapportionment is possible if population is shown to have grown substantially since the 2010 Census, it is unlikely Alaska will receive more electoral votes anytime soon.

Source: National Conference of State Legislators, “The Electoral College.”


How do states choose their electors?

The Constitution does not dictate how states choose electors, instead delegating this task to state legislatures. Forty-eight states and DC use a winner-take-all system where the state looks at the overall winner of the statewide popular vote, chooses that candidate’s electors, and allocates all the state’s electoral votes to that candidate. However, Maine and Nebraska appoint individual electors based on the popular vote in each Congressional District, and two electors based on the winner of the statewide popular vote.

Alaska uses a winner-take-all system. Each political party chooses their electors, usually through party convention. On Election Day, those votes are pledged to the majority winner, whose electors represent Alaska in the Electoral College.


Why is the Electoral College important?

The Founders saw the burgeoning United States as a geographically, economically, and socially diverse nation, and as the nation grew to 50 states, this has only become more accurate. The Electoral College ensures that candidates for the Presidency appeal to an array of geographic, economic, and social interests, which is intended to yield a President who incorporates the nation’s diversity and considers the interests of different areas. The Electoral College thus prevents regional candidates from sweeping an election, especially urban centers.

The Electoral College also guarantees that minority interests are balanced with the will of the majority – this principle is foundational to the U.S. system of representative democracy. State-by-state voting and guaranteed representation of at least three votes in the Electoral College means that rural areas are not discounted in election campaigns. However, more populous states also receive electors proportional to their population, which allows the will of the majority to be considered as well. The Electoral College ensures the President has widespread support across the nation, even if they have not won the popular vote.


What are some critiques of the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is not without its critics. A top complaint is that the winner does not always have the popular vote, which supposedly reduces the legitimacy of the election. However, from a historical perspective, there have been few elections in which the President did not have the popular vote as well as a majority of Electoral College votes. Out of the 48 presidential elections for which there are records, there are only four in which the Electoral College winner did not win the popular vote: 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. Further, the main contention – that not winning the popular vote decreases the legitimacy of the President – is questionable, since the U.S. system of representative democracy has always sent delegates on behalf of the people for many purposes, not just the presidential election. If the Electoral College is in contradiction to this principle, then Congress itself would also be.

Another criticism of the Electoral College is that it overrepresents rural states and underrepresents urban states. It is true that states like Wyoming, whose residents comprise 0.1 percent of the U.S. population, receive 0.5 percent of the 538 Electoral College votes. In this view, Alaska is also overrepresented: Alaska’s population comprises about 0.22 percent of the total U.S. population as of 2019 and also it receives three electoral votes, or 0.5 percent of total votes. California’s population is approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population, but the state only receives slightly over 10 percent of the Electoral College votes. However, most differences between states are within 0.5 percent of their share of the U.S. population, and even when aggregated, these gaps would have made no difference in any election in U.S. history.

Critics also point out that the Electoral College has created a system in which candidates focus primarily on a few swing states, where the influence of each voter becomes magnified and blown out of proportion. Though these claims have some validity in principle, and some states are repeatedly swing states, every state has the potential to become a swing state as demographics change, and many states have flipped in recent history. Further, the selective campaigning problem is actually worsened with national popular votes: Candidates would only visit a few major cities, and since cities lose population slowly, it is likely those cities would dominate politics for decades. The nine most populous states contain 51 percent of America’s population, which would be enough to win based on a nationwide popular vote – without the Electoral College, the voices of citizens in 41 states would be lost.

A critique that has gained traction recently is the problem of “faithless electors,” which are electors who vote contrary to the way they pledged to vote when selected by their party. However, in the entire history of presidential elections, faithless electors only make up 0.5 percent of all electoral votes cast. Even in 2016, when seven electors were successful in voting faithlessly, an additional thirty votes would have been necessary to swing the outcome.

Further, any potential problem from faithless electors has been mitigated by a recent Supreme Court ruling, which confirms that states have the ability to impose conditions on electors requiring them to vote for their pledged candidate. In fact, 32 states require electors to vote the way they pledged, and 15 states impose sanctions like removing that elector, nullifying the vote, and substituting an alternate, as well as fines. Alaska currently does not have any penalty for faithless electors, and their votes are counted, but this could be changed through legislation. These disincentives largely prevent faithless electors from making any difference in election outcomes.


What are some alternatives to the Electoral College?

Abolishing the Electoral College would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which follows its own process designed to require broad consensus between states. However, attention has recently shifted to the National Popular Vote (NPV) Compact, in which states who join the NPV Compact pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, not necessarily the winner of their state, thus dodging the constitutional amendment requirement.

Problems with a national popular vote of any kind include the fact that a candidate could win with much less than a majority if the field is split among many candidates. Further, major cities and population centers would dominate the political landscape as well as the cultural landscape, as candidates would attempt to gain as many votes as possible instead of appealing to a broad cross-section of the United States. The interests of states with low population density would be largely ignored during both campaigning and legislating – the voices of citizens in 41 states would be ignored.


The Bottom Line of the Electoral College

Using the Electoral College as the United States’ method for choosing the President has worked extremely well to select good Presidents. The Electoral College incentivizes candidates to build nationwide support and unify the country, as well as ensures that the interests of both rural and urban citizens are respected by candidates. The Electoral College also discourages corruption, and most critiques of the system, like faithless electors, have seldom posed practical problems for elections.

The Electoral College system has produced a remarkably competent streak of executives envied worldwide, who are so respected because they needed to give consideration to the interests of everyone, not just major cities, during the election process. Changing the Electoral College would change candidates’ incentives – and probably not for the better.