Order Code RS20273
Updated September 8, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
The Electoral College: How It Works in
Contemporary Presidential Elections
Thomas H. Neale
Government and Finance Division
When Americans vote for a President and Vice President, they actually vote for
presidential electors, known collectively as the electoral college. It is these electors,
chosen by the people, who elect the chief executive. The Constitution assigns each state
a number of electors equal to the combined total of its Senate and House of
Representatives delegations; at present, the number of electors per state ranges from
three to 55, for a total of 538. Anyone may serve as an elector, except for Members of
Congress, and persons holding offices of “Trust or Profit” under the Constitution. In
each presidential election year, a group (ticket or slate) of candidates for elector is
nominated by political parties and other groups in each state, usually at a state party
convention, or by the party state committee. It is these elector-candidates, rather than
the presidential and vice presidential nominees, for whom the people vote in the election
held on Tuesday after the first Monday in November (November 2, 2004). In most
states, voters cast a single vote for the slate of electors pledged to the party presidential
and vice presidential candidates of their choice. The slate winning the most popular
votes is elected; this is known as the winner-take-all, or general ticket, system. Maine
and Nebraska use the district system, under which two electors are chosen on a
statewide, at-large basis, and one is elected in each congressional district. Electors
assemble in their respective states on Monday after the second Wednesday in December
(December 13, 2004). They are pledged and expected, but not required, to vote for the
candidates they represent. Separate ballots are cast for President and Vice President,
after which the electoral college ceases to exist for another four years. The electoral
vote results are counted and declared at a joint session of Congress, held on January 6
of the year succeeding the election. A majority of electoral votes (currently 270 of 538)
is required to win. This report will be updated as events warrant.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered several methods of electing the
President, including selection by Congress, by the governors of the states, by the state
legislatures, by a special group of Members of Congress chosen by lot, and by direct
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
popular election. Late in the convention, the matter was referred to the Committee of
Eleven on Postponed Matters, which devised the electoral college system in its original
form.1 This plan, which met with widespread approval by the delegates, was incorporated
into the final document with only minor changes. It sought to reconcile differing state and
federal interests, provide a degree of popular participation in the election, give the less
populous states some additional leverage in the process, preserve the presidency as
independent of Congress for election and reelection, and generally insulate the election
process from political manipulation.
The Constitution gave each state a number of electors equal to the combined total
of its Senate and House of Representatives membership. The electors were to be chosen
by the states “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct ... ”(Article II, section
1). Qualifications for the office were broad: the only persons prohibited from serving as
electors are Senators, Representatives, and persons “holding an Office of Trust or Profit
under the United States.”2 In order to forestall partisan intrigue and manipulation, the
electors were required to assemble in their respective states and cast their ballots as state
units, rather than meet at a central location. At least one of the candidates for whom the
electors vote was required to be an inhabitant of another state. A majority of electoral
votes was necessary to elect, a requirement intended to insure broad acceptance of a
winning candidate, while election by the House was provided as a default method in the
event of electoral college deadlock. Finally, Congress was empowered to set nationwide
dates for choice and meeting of electors. All the foregoing structural elements of the
electoral college system remain in effect currently. The original method of electing the
President and Vice President, however, proved unworkable, and was replaced by the 12th
Amendment, ratified in 1804.3
The Electoral College Today4
Notwithstanding the founders’ efforts, the electoral college system almost never
functioned as they intended, but, as with so many constitutional provisions, the document
prescribed only the system’s basic elements, leaving ample room for development. As
Although the term is not found in the Constitution, the electors have been known collectively
as the electoral college since the early days of the republic, an expression that may be misleading,
since the college has no continuing existence, never meets in plenary session, and ceases to exist
immediately after the electors have performed their function.
U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1. In practice, this formulation also prohibits any person
working for the federal government in either a civilian or military capacity from serving as an
Under the original system, each elector cast two votes for President (for different candidates),
and no vote for Vice President. The candidate receiving the most votes was elected President,
provided it was a majority of the number of electors (not electoral votes). The runner up became
For a list of electors in the presidential election of 2000, consult the National Archives at:
information on proposals to reform the electoral college, consult CRS Report RL30804, The
Electoral College: An Overview and Analysis of Reform Proposals, by L. Paige Whitaker and
Thomas H. Neale; and CRS Report RS21496, The Electoral College: Reform Proposals in the
108th Congress, by Thomas H. Neale.
the republic evolved, so did the electoral college system, and, by the late 19th century, the
following range of constitutional, federal and state legal, and political elements of the
contemporary system were in place.
Allocation of Electors and Electoral Votes. The Constitution gives each state
a number of electors equal to the combined total of its Senate membership (two for each
state) and House of Representatives delegation (currently ranging from one to 53,
depending on population). The 23rd Amendment provides an additional three electors to
the District of Columbia. The number of electoral votes per state, based on the 2000
census, ranges from three (for seven states and the District of Columbia) to 55 for
California, the most populous state. Table 1 provides electoral vote allocations by state
and D.C. These totals are adjusted following each decennial census in a process called
reapportionment, which reallocates the number of Members of the House of
Representatives to reflect changing rates of population growth (or decline) among the
states. Thus, a state may gain or lose electors following reapportionment, as it gains or
loses Representatives, but it always retains its two “senatorial” electors, and at least one
more reflecting its House delegation. The allocation among the states is in effect for the
presidential elections of 2004 and 2008; electoral votes will next be reallocated following
the 2010 census, and will be in effect for the 2012 election.
Popular Election of Electors. Today, all presidential electors are chosen by the
voters, but, in the early republic, more than half the states chose electors in their
legislatures, thus eliminating any direct involvement by the voting public in the election.
This practice changed rapidly after the turn of the 19th century, however, as the right to
vote was extended to an ever-wider segment of the population. As the electorate grew,
so did the number of persons able to vote for presidential electors, to its present limit of
all eligible citizens age 18 or older. The tradition that the voters choose the presidential
electors thus became an early and permanent feature of the electoral college system; while
the states theoretically retain the constitutional right to choose some other method, this
would be extremely unlikely under normal circumstances.
The existence of the presidential electors and the duties of the electoral college are
so little noted in contemporary society that most American voters believe that they vote
directly for President and Vice President on election day. In fact, they are actually voting
for a slate of candidates for the office of elector nominated by a party or other political
group, and pledged to support the candidates of that party. Although candidates for
elector may be well known persons, such as governors, state legislators, or other state and
local officials, they generally receive little recognition as electors. In fact, in most states,
the names of individual electors do not appear anywhere on the ballot; instead only those
of the various candidates appear, often prefaced by the words “electors for.” Moreover,
electoral votes are commonly referred to as having “been awarded” to the winning
candidate, as if no human beings were involved in the process.
The Electors: Ratifying the Voters’ Choice. Presidential electors in
contemporary elections are expected, and, in many cases pledged, to vote for the
candidates of the party that nominated them. While there is evidence that the founders
assumed they would be independent, weighing the merits of competing presidential
candidates, the electors have been regarded as agents of the public will since the first
decade under the Constitution.5 They are expected to vote for the candidates of the party
that nominated them. Nevertheless, individual electors have sometimes broken their
commitment, voting for a different candidate or candidates than those to whom they were
pledged; they are known as “faithless” or “unfaithful” electors. In fact, most
constitutional scholars believe that electors, once chosen, remain constitutionally free
agents, able to vote for any candidate who meets the requirements for President and Vice
President.6 Faithless electors have, however, been few in number (in the 20th century, one
each in 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1988, and one blank ballot cast in 2000),
and have never influenced the outcome of a presidential election.
The General Ticket and District Systems. While the Constitution is silent on
the formula for awarding electoral votes, 48 states and the District of Columbia currently
use the “general ticket” or “winner-take-all” system. Under this arrangement, each
political party or group or independent candidate eligible to be on the ballot nominates a
group (“ticket” or “slate”) of elector-candidates equal in number to the state’s total
number of electors. Voters then cast a single vote for the ticket of electors pledged to the
presidential and vice presidential candidates of their choice; the ticket receiving the most
votes statewide (a plurality is sufficient) is elected. These people become the electors for
that state. Under the general ticket system, in a hypothetical two-party presidential contest,
candidates of Party A (and their slate of electors) may receive 51% of the popular vote,
as opposed to 49% for Party B’s candidates. Notwithstanding the closeness of the results,
all of Party A’s electors are chosen, and Party A’s presidential candidates normally
receive all the state’s electoral votes; Party B gains no electoral votes. The general ticket
system has been favored since the 19th century, as it tends to magnify the winning
candidates’ victory margin within states, and generally guarantees a national electoral
college majority for the winners. It has been criticized on the grounds that it effectively
negates the votes for the runners up.
One alternative plan that seeks to remedy this perceived failing is the district system,
which has been adopted by Maine and Nebraska. Under the district system, two electors
are chosen on a statewide, at-large basis, and one is elected in each congressional district.
Each voter still casts a single vote for President and Vice President, but the votes are
counted twice: first on a statewide basis, with the two at-large elector-candidates winning
the most votes (a plurality) elected, and then again in each district, where the district
elector-candidate winning the most votes is elected. The claimed advantage of the district
system is that it more accurately reflects differences in support in various parts of a state,
and does not necessarily “disenfranchise” voters who picked the losing ticket.
Nominating Elector-Candidates: Diverse State Procedures. Nomination
of elector-candidates is another of the many aspects of this system left to state and
political party preferences. Most states prescribe one of two methods: in 34 states
candidates for presidential elector are nominated by state party conventions, while 10
Neal Peirce and Lawrence D. Longley, The People’s President: The Electoral College in
American History and the Direct Vote Alternative, rev. ed. (New Haven, CT, 1981: Yale U.
Press), pp. 24, 96-101.
U.S. Congress, Senate, The Constitution of the United States of America, Analysis and
Interpretation, S. Doc. 99-16, 99th Cong., 1st sess., prepared by the Congressional Research
Service (Washington: GPO, 1987), pp. 457-460.
states mandate nomination by the state party’s central committee. The remainder uses a
variety of methods, including nomination by the governor (on recommendation of party
committees), by primary election, and by the party’s presidential nominee.
Joint Tickets: One Vote for President and Vice President. General
election ballots, which are regulated by state election laws and authorities, offer voters
joint candidacies for President and Vice President for each political party or other group.
Thus, voters cast a single vote for electors pledged to the joint ticket of the party they
represent. They cannot effectively vote for a President from one party and a Vice
President from another, unless their state provides for write-in votes.
General Election Day. Elections for all federal elected officials are held on the
Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years; presidential
elections are held in every year divisible by four (November 2, 2004 for the next
presidential election). Congress selected this day in 1845 (5 Stat. 721); previously, states
held elections on different days between September and November, a practice that
sometimes led to multiple voting across state lines, and other fraudulent practices. By
tradition, November was chosen because the harvest was in, and farmers were able to take
the time needed to vote. Tuesday was selected because it gave a full day’s travel between
Sunday, which was widely observed as a strict day of rest, and election day.7 Travel was
also easier throughout the north during November, before winter had set in.
The Electors Convene. The 12th Amendment requires electors to meet “in their
respective states ...” This provision was intended to deter manipulation of the election by
having the state electoral colleges meet simultaneously, but keeping them separate.
Congress sets the date on which the electors meet (3 U.S.C. 7), currently the first Monday
after the second Wednesday in December (December 13, 2004). The electors almost
always meet in the state capital, usually in the capitol building or state house itself. They
vote “by ballot”8 separately for President and Vice President (at least one of the
candidates must be from another state). The results are then endorsed, and copies are sent
to the Vice President (in his capacity as President of the Senate); the secretary of state of
their state; the Archivist of the United States; and the judge of the federal district court
of the district in which the electors met (3 U.S.C. 11). The electors then adjourn, and the
electoral college ceases to exist until the next presidential election.
Congress Counts, Ascertains, and Declares the Vote. The final step in the
presidential election process (aside from the presidential inaugural on January 20) is the
counting, ascertainment, and declaration of the electoral votes in Congress.9 The House
of Representatives and Senate meet in joint session in the House chamber on January 6
of the year following the presidential election, at 1:00 P.M.10 The Vice President, who
In most rural areas, the only polling place was at the county seat, frequently a journey of many
miles on foot or horseback.
12th Amendment; this provision is interpreted to require paper ballots for President and Vice
3 U.S.C. 15-18.
Congress occasionally sets a different date for the electoral vote count session, particularly in
presides in his capacity as President of the Senate, opens the electoral vote certificates
from each state, in alphabetical order. He then passes the certificates to four tellers (vote
counters), two appointed by each house, who announce the results. The votes are then
counted, and the results are announced by the Vice President. Objections, if any, must be
presented in writing, and must be signed by at lest one Senator and one Representative.
The candidates receiving a majority of electoral votes (currently 270 of 538) are declared
the winners by the Vice President, an action that constitutes “a sufficient declaration of
the persons, if any, elected President and Vice President of the States” (3 U.S.C. 15).11
Table 1. Electoral Vote Allocation by State, 2004-2008
District of Columbia
years when January 6 falls on a Sunday.
If there is no majority, the President is elected in the House of Representatives, and the Vice
President in the Senate by the contingent election process. For further information, see CRS
Report RS20300, Election of the President and Vice President by Congress: Contingent Election,
by Thomas H. Neale.