How Does the Electoral College Elect Our President?


A couple of my earlier posts described the many intricacies of the primary election process. The primary delegate system, which Trump and Sanders described legitimately as “rigged” is much more convoluted than the general election electoral system. However, even in the general election, the voters do not elect the president directly; they elect electors who represent them in choosing between the candidates.

The name, Electoral College, was adopted by our founding fathers and written into the Constitution. It gives each state a number of electors based on its Congressional delegation (U.S. senators and representatives). If you look at your state on the map above, you will see a number representing your two U.S. senators plus your total number of U.S. representatives. That is how many electors your state gets of the 538 total electors voting for the president. The candidate receiving the majority of electoral votes–at least 270–wins the election. Note that the Constitution also gives the District of Columbia three electors. This map can change in state numbers with each ten-year census, but the total remains the same.

Most states have a “winner-take-all” system that awards all electors to the state’s winning presidential candidate. However, Maine and Nebraska each have a variation of proportional representation. I will disregard these two exceptions in my following comments. Each state’s political parties select their own potential electors. These electors are usually state office holders and prominent party supporters, but cannot be U.S. senators or representatives. The candidate winning the majority of the state’s popular vote is awarded the winning party’s electors. For example, if Trump wins over 50% of a state’s votes, he receives the Republican electors, and the Democratic electors become non-players. So, when you cast your vote, you are actually voting for your party’s electors, not for your choice for president. These electors are pledged to vote for their party’s candidate, but, with a few exceptions, are not legally bound to vote that way. It is very rare, though, that an elector does not vote according to his or her pledge.

The often-discussed “swing” states are extremely important in every election, especially this year. Most states’ electoral outcome can already be predicted with considerable accuracy. The Republican red states and the Democratic blue states have been reasonably consistent in recent presidential elections. However, states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Florida have high elector numbers and probable close popular votes. For instance, Florida could divide its popular votes almost evenly, but a candidate that would squeak by with just over 50% would receive all 29 electoral votes. Remember Bush’s victory in 2000 when Gore won the nation’s popular vote by a half-million votes, but lost the determining electoral vote in Florida? Bush had a majority of only 537 popular votes in the state? By the way, if a third party is involved, and no candidates receives 270 or more electoral votes, the House votes for the president from among the three candidates.

Here is this year’s Electoral College schedule. The general election is always the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which is November 8th this year. Of course, the results will probably be revealed that night, but the official casting of votes by the electors will not happen until their meeting on December 19th. Before they meet, the governors of each state will certify their state electors’ qualifications and authority to the U.S. Archivist who is ultimately responsible for the Electoral College process. Currently, David Ferriero (whom you have probably never heard of) has this responsibility in addition to his management of the National Archives repository. On January 6th, 2017, the certified votes of the Electoral College are counted in a joint session of the House and Senate, and the winner of the presidency is officially announced. On January 20th, 2017, the new president takes the oath of office at noon and begins his term.

So there is your quick review of the mechanics of electing our 45th president in about three months. Finally, I urge you to study, think, and pray earnestly about your vote in this election. We could hardly have wider extremes of political philosophy than those of these two candidates. The process is important to understand, but the impact of our choices on the future of this nation is monumental.

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