Sunday, September 2

How does the electoral college work?

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Every four years or 1461 days the airwaves, television stations and internet come to life with accusations and finger pointing from one party to another in the American political system all in an attempt to capture your vote for the parties candidate for President.

But do the people of the United States elect the President by casting votes every four years?

The answer is - yes and at the same time no - it does and doesn't - your vote has an indirect effect.

Here's how it works.

Every four years, in November, each state holds an election for President.
All eligible legal non-felon citizens may vote.

Citizens symbolically cast a vote for a parties "ticket" of candidates. The "ticket" includes a both a candidate for President and a candidate for Vice President of the United States.

The outcome of the citizens symbolic vote or the popular vote in each of the 50 United States determines a slate of electors known as the Electoral College. US territories are not represented in the Electoral College though the citizens of territories do cast the same symbolic votes as the citizens of the United States. The members of the Electoral College make the actual choice of President and Vice President but it takes a little longer than the popular vote does and it is a little more complicated than you might think.

Each state has as many electors as it has senators and members of the House of Representatives as outlined in the Constitution of the United States, and since 1964 that total has been 538. (The District of Columbia gets three electors even though it has no representation in Congress.) Each State's legislature decides individually how its electors are to be chosen again as directed by the US Constitution.

In December, the electors meet in their respective state capitols to cast the true ballots for the selection of the next President and Vice President.

States may or may not require their electors to vote with the popular majority, and they may or may not give all of their electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

These ballots are finally opened, counted and certified by a joint session of Congress in January of the following year.

If no candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes or if the top two candidates are tied, the House of Representatives selects a President from among the five candidates with the most electoral votes. Each state's delegation then has a single vote and in turn the Senate selects a vice president by the same process. This hasn't happened in a US election since 1876.

What does all of this mean?

It means, as everyone learned or was reminded in 2000, that the candidate who receives the most votes nationwide does not necessarily become the President.

The United States holds an Indirect Election for the Presidential ticket.

There is no national election for President. There are only separate state elections.

For a candidate to become President, he or she must win enough state elections to garner a majority of electoral votes.

As a result, Presidential campaigns focus on winning states, not on a national majority.

It also means that electors can disregard the popular vote and cast votes for candidates that are not supported by the populist votes of their home state.

Further reading:

A number of websites provide more detailed information about the electoral process but the ultimate source, of course, is the U.S. Constitution itself. See Article 2, Section 1 and Amendment XII for the legal text.

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