Everything you need to know about the Electoral College

Donald Trump, Jr. (L) and former U.S. President Bill Clinton . (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(by Rebecca Shabad, CBS News) – Millions of voters will head to the polls next Tuesday to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election (and some already have), but the outcome won’t be official for another two months, in January. That’s because the presidential election is decided by the Electoral College, and not the national popular vote.

It’s a process that was established by the Constitution that says a candidate can only be elected president if he or she wins a majority of the 538 electors. Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, therefore, must secure at least 270 electoral votes to win the White House.

…Former President Bill Clinton is among the Democratic Party’s slate of electors in New York, which also includes Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. … [If] Trump wins New York, his son Donald Trump Jr. [is] on the state’s slate of Republican electors.

How does it work?

Each state’s allotted number of electoral votes is equal to the size of each state’s congressional delegation. Texas, for example, has 38 electors, which means the state has 36 members in the House of Representatives plus its two senators. California has the most electoral votes, 55, and a few states like the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming have as few as three. Washington, D.C. also has three electoral votes.


Most states distribute electoral votes through a winner-take-all system, so if Clinton were to win the battleground state of Arizona, 11 electors selected by the state’s Democratic Party would be elected to the Electoral College. Maine and Nebraska operate under a different system, whereby the winner of each congressional district is awarded one electoral vote each and the winner of the statewide vote is awarded each state’s remaining two electoral votes. …

What happens between Election Day and the inauguration?

On Tuesday, voters will select a presidential candidate, but they’ll technically be casting ballots for a candidate’s party’s slate of electors. …

On Dec. 19, each state’s winning slate of electors [Democratic or Republican] is expected to meet in person in state capitals to cast one ballot for president and one for vice president. Those vote counts are then sent to the government by late December.

On the afternoon of Jan. 6, unless the date is changed, the vice president, Joe Biden, will open the electoral votes before a joint session of the new Congress where they will be counted.

If there is a tie in the Electoral College or if no candidate receives 270 electoral votes, the House would elect the next president based on the three presidential candidates who receive the most electoral votes, with one vote per state delegation, and the Senate would elect the vice president. …

The candidate elected president spends the time between November and January – known as “the transition” – assembling his/her cabinet and White House staff and preparing for government. If the sitting president wins his administration will largely stay in place, although he may decide to reshuffle his cabinet and aides for his second term.

Who are the electors?

The Constitution doesn’t provide too many details about who can serve as an elector except that no sitting senator or House member can be appointed as one. Political parties in each state generally choose their slate of electors. …

Are electors required to vote for their pledged candidate?

There is no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote for whom they are pledged. Twenty-six states and D.C., however, bind their electors to vote for their promised candidates. People who vote for someone other than for whom they are pledged are known as “faithless electors” and they’ve never decided a presidential election. “Faithless electors” are rare, with only one in each of the 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1988 elections. …

Eliminating the Electoral College?

A movement to implement a plan that would elect the president based on the national popular vote has been slowly spreading across the U.S. The plan has been introduced in 50 state legislatures and so far, 10 states as well as D.C. have passed such legislation totaling 165 electoral votes. If enough additional states also passed the plan so that they have at least 270 electoral votes, the plan could actually take effect.

Experts say it’s not completely clear what reform would lead to except that it’s clear that big cities would play a much larger role in presidential elections.

“What you will see is significant money in New York and Houston, in Miami, in L.A., and in Chicago,” said John Hudak of the liberal Brookings Institution. “You’ll see big cities in red states, big cities in blue states being targeted,” adding that Republicans might also have to target some rural areas as well.

“I think the original reason for [the Electoral College] is still very much valid today,” said Hans A. von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who supports keeping the system. “The framers were afraid that if the presidency was just based on the national popular vote, then candidates would simply go to the big cities and ignore the rural parts of the country.”

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NOTE TO STUDENTS: Before answering the questions, read the information under “Background” below and watch the video under “Resources.”

1. a) When will the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election become official?
b) Why will it take that long?

2. a) What is the Electoral College and where in the Constitution was is it established?
b) How many electoral college votes are there in total? On what numbers are they based?
c) How many electoral votes does a candidate need to win the presidency?
d) Why was the Electoral College established?

3. a) What is the “winner-take-all” system?
b) Name the two states that do not use the “winner-take-all” system.

4. a) Who is eligible to be an elector?
b) In how many states are electors bound to vote for the candidate the voters elected?
c) What are “faithless electors”? – What effect have they had on elections?

5. What are “swing states” (also known as “battleground” or “toss-up” states)?

6. What is the “transition”?

CHALLENGE: In 2013, nearly two-thirds of the public, 63 percent, said they wanted to get rid of the Electoral College, according to a Gallup poll, which found only 29 percent said they were against doing away with the system. It is important for voters to fully understand the purpose of the Electoral College before voting to eliminate it. (Just as it is important to understand the reasons for banning selfies in the voting booth before voting to end that ban.) Also, unintended consequences must be considered. Read the editorial supporting the Electoral College. “
What do you think? Should the Electoral College be eliminated? Explain your answer.

a) List the battleground states in the 2016 presidential election.
b) List the winner of each state’s electoral votes, and the number of popular votes each candidate received.
c) As well as voting for president, Americans are also electing all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate. Plus, they are voting for many local and state officials. List the names and parties of the Representatives and (if applicable) Senators who won in your state. Who is the Representative for your district?



  • The Electoral College was established by the U.S. Constitution (Article II, Section I) and amended in the 12th Amendment. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012: “This Electoral College was built into the U.S. Constitution because the country’s founders were skeptical about having elections determined by direct popular will and also wanted to ensure small states had a voice in national affairs.”
  • The Electoral College is the institution that officially elects the President and Vice President of the United States every four years.
  • The total of U.S. electoral votes is 538.  A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency – it’s half of 538, plus one.
  • The number 538 is the sum of the nation’s 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia. (i.e.  Each state gets one elector per member of Congress.)  e.g. Alaska gets three electoral votes, because there are two senators and one representative in Congress from that state. California gets 55 electoral votes, because there are two senators and 53 representatives in Congress from that state.
  • A candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state gets all its electoral votes (this is called “winner-take-all”). The exceptions to this rule are Nebraska and Maine, where the state winner gets the two electoral votes derived from the two senators, while the candidate who wins each congressional district gets the electoral vote derived from that representative.
  • Technically, the election of the president of the United States takes place during a joint session of Congress on January 6th following Election Day. That’s when members of the House and Senate meet in the House chamber to preside over the counting of electors’ votes.

How many Presidential candidates lost the popular vote but won the election by winning the electoral college vote?

  • John Quincy Adams 1824 (elected by Congress) over Andrew Jackson
  • Rutherford B Hayes 1876 (declared the Electoral College winner by an Electoral Commission) over Samuel J Tilden
  • Benjamin Harrison 1888 won over Grover Cleveland
  • George W. Bush 2000 (After disputed Florida electors were awarded to him by Supreme Court Ruling) over Al Gore. The last recount showed that Bush won.

(NOTE:  Samuel Tilden actually won more than half of the popular vote. The others only won a plurality [more votes than the other candidate, but not more than half the votes].)
from wikianswers.com


swing state, also referred to as a battleground state (or purple state because it is not majority Democratic “Blue State” or Republican “Red State”) is a state in which no single candidate or party has overwhelming support in securing that state’s electoral college votes. Such states are targets of both major political parties in presidential elections, since winning these states is the best opportunity for a party to gain electoral votes. Non-swing states are sometimes called safe states, because one candidate has strong enough support that he or she can safely assume that he or she will win the state’s votes. (from wikipedia)

Watch an explanation of Swing States from The Telegraph:

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