The Electoral College

As prescribed in the U.S. Constitution, American presidents are elected not directly by the people, but by the people’s electors.

The Electoral College was created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution as an alternative to electing the president by popular vote or by Congress. Each state elects the number of representatives to the Electoral College that is equal to its number of Senators—two from each state—plus its number of delegates in the House of Representatives. The District of Columbia, which has no voting representation in Congress, has three Electoral College votes. There are currently 538 electors in the Electoral College; 270 votes are needed to win the presidential election.

Several weeks after the general election, electors from each state meet in their state capitals and cast their official vote for president and vice president. The votes are then sent to the president of the U.S. Senate who, on January 6 with the entire Congress present, tallies the votes and announces the winner.

The winner of the Electoral College vote usually is the candidate who has won the popular vote. However, it is possible to win the presidency without winning the popular vote. The most recent case occurred in the 2000 presidential election when President Bush won the Electoral College vote—271 to 266—after losing the popular vote to then Vice President Al Gore. Two other presidents—Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888—became president without winning the popular vote. In the 1824 election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Jackson won the popular vote but neither won a majority of Electoral College votes. Adams secured the presidency only after the election was decided by vote of the House of Representatives, a procedure provided for in the Constitution when no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College.