The Electoral College: What is it and what does it do?

(Diego Cambiaso/Flickr Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)
(Diego Cambiaso/Flickr Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

(MEDIA GENERAL) — Political scientists, journalists and talking heads refer to it as “The Map,” “The Path to 270,” “The Road to the White House.”

What they are referring to is the Electoral College – which, for those who have a hazy memory of your high school civics class – is what actually elects the President of the United States. Presidential campaigns know their goal isn’t necessarily to win the popular vote but to take the absolute majority of the electoral votes.

So for those who need it or are just curious, here’s a refresher course on the Electoral College.

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is the constitutional process put in place by the nation’s founders as a way to split the presidential election to reflect the voice of the American public and the Congress.

When was the Electoral College formed?

Technically, the Electoral College was formed in the passing of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. However, Electoral College laws were changed in two constitutional amendments – the 12th and 23rd.

The 12th amendment was brought forward to solve issues surrounding the third presidential election where Thomas Jefferson and his vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr, were forced to square off in a Congressional tiebreaker because no candidate won a majority of the votes.

The 23rd amendment was brought forward to allocate three electors to Washington D.C. which, up until 1961, did not have representation in presidential elections.

How are electoral votes assigned?

Each state is awarded as many electors as its number of representatives in Congress, which is based on the U.S. Census that is conducted every 10 years.

Each state has two Senators and at least one member of the House of Representatives, which means the lowest amount of electoral votes one state can hold is three. The seven smallest states by population – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming – only have three electoral votes. California, due to population ratios from the 2010 census, has 55 electoral votes, the largest allocation of any state.

When adding in the three electoral votes awarded to the District of Columbia, there are 538 total electoral votes. The total of electoral votes gave rise to the “race for 270” idiom, which is the number of votes a candidate must earn to secure an absolute majority (one more than 269, which is half of 538).

Who are the electors?

Electors are chosen at the state level and can be virtually anyone state political parties choose to represent them at the formal Electoral College meeting in December. The only provisions are constitutional laws that say electors must not be a Senator, a member of the House of Representatives, or a person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States.

At the Electoral College meeting, electors cast their votes which are sent to the President of the Senate. The results are announced before both Houses of Congress on Jan. 6 – two weeks before the president-elect is sworn into office.

Are electors forced to vote according to their state’s results?

There is nothing in the constitution or federal law that directly states electors must vote in line with their states’ voting results, however, several states have laws in place that force electors to do so. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether “faithless electors” should face a penalty for breaking with their state’s results. To date, no elector has been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged, and a “faithless elector” has never swung an election.

According to the National Archives, more than 99 percent of electors in U.S. history have voted as pledged. In 2004, an elector from Minnesota mistakenly cast their vote for Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards instead of presidential candidate John Kerry. In 2000, an elector from the District of Columbia abstained from voting as a protest of D.C.’s lack of congressional representation.

What happens if no one gets a majority of Electoral College votes?

If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives chooses a president in a contingent election. Each state receives one vote. The top three candidates are considered. Whoever wins the majority of votes wins the election. The Senate goes through the same process to nominate a vice-president with the top two candidates.

Congress has named the president four times in U.S. history: electing Thomas Jefferson in 1800, John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876 and, technically, Gerald Ford in 1976. Jefferson and Adams were named president by the Electoral College procedural following an election. It was ruled Hayes had won the Electoral College by the Supreme Court and a bipartisan commission of Senators and Representatives after three states ruled both major candidates won. Ford was nominated by Richard Nixon to fill the vice presidency vacated by Spiro T. Agnew in 1973 and was confirmed with a majority vote by the House and Senate, which is dictated by the 25th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Ford became president when Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal.

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