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The Electoral College, Explained

A national popular vote would help ensure that every vote counts equally, making American democracy more representative.

Published: February 17, 2021

In the United States, the pres­id­ency is decided not by the national popu­lar vote but by the Elect­oral College — an outdated and convo­luted system that some­times yields results contrary to the choice of the major­ity of Amer­ican voters. On five occa­sions, includ­ing in two of the last six elec­tions, candid­ates have won the Elect­oral College, and thus the pres­id­ency, despite losing the nation­wide popu­lar vote. 

The Elect­oral College has racist origins — when estab­lished, it applied the three-fifths clause, which gave a long-term elect­oral advant­age to slave states in the South — and contin­ues to dilute the polit­ical power of voters of color. It incentiv­izes pres­id­en­tial campaigns to focus on a relat­ively small number of “swing states.” Together, these dynam­ics have spurred debate about the system’s demo­cratic legit­im­acy.

To make the United States a more repres­ent­at­ive demo­cracy, reformers are push­ing for the pres­id­ency to be decided instead by the national popu­lar vote, which would help ensure that every voter counts equally.

What is the Elect­oral College and how does it work?

The Elect­oral College is a group of inter­me­di­ar­ies desig­nated by the Consti­tu­tion to select the pres­id­ent and vice pres­id­ent of the United States. Each of the 50 states is alloc­ated pres­id­en­tial elect­ors equal to the number of its repres­ent­at­ives and senat­ors. The rati­fic­a­tion of the 23rd Amend­ment in 1961 allowed citizens in the District of Columbia to parti­cip­ate in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions as well; they have consist­ently had three elect­ors.

In total, the Elect­oral College comprises 538 members. A pres­id­en­tial candid­ate must win a major­ity of their votes — at least 270 — in order to win the elec­tion.

The Consti­tu­tion grants state legis­latures the power to decide how to appoint their elect­ors. Initially, a number of state legis­latures directly selec­ted their elect­ors, but during the 19th century they transitioned to the popu­lar vote, which is now used by all 50 states. In other words, each awards its elect­oral votes to the pres­id­en­tial candid­ate chosen by the state’s voters.

Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia use a winner-take-all system, award­ing all of their elect­oral votes to the popu­lar vote winner in the state. Maine and Nebraska award one elect­oral vote to the popu­lar vote winner in each of their congres­sional districts and their remain­ing two elect­oral votes to the statewide winner. Under this system, those two states some­times split their elect­oral votes among candid­ates.

In the months lead­ing up to the general elec­tion, the polit­ical parties in each state typic­ally nomin­ate their own slates of would-be elect­ors. The state’s popu­lar vote determ­ines which party’s slates will be made elect­ors. Members of the Elect­oral College meet and vote in their respect­ive states on the Monday after the second Wednes­day in Decem­ber after Elec­tion Day. Then, on Janu­ary 6, a joint session of Congress meets at the Capitol to count the elect­oral votes and declare the outcome of the elec­tion, paving the way for the pres­id­en­tial inaug­ur­a­tion on Janu­ary 20.

How was the Elect­oral College estab­lished?

The Consti­tu­tional Conven­tion in 1787 settled on the Elect­oral College as a comprom­ise between deleg­ates who thought Congress should select the pres­id­ent and others who favored a direct nation­wide popu­lar vote. Instead, state legis­latures were entrus­ted with appoint­ing elect­ors.

Article II of the Consti­tu­tion, which estab­lished the exec­ut­ive branch of the federal govern­ment, outlined the framers’ plan for the elect­ing the pres­id­ent and vice pres­id­ent. Under this plan, each elector cast two votes for pres­id­ent; the candid­ate who received the most votes became the pres­id­ent, with the second-place finisher becom­ing vice pres­id­ent — which led to admin­is­tra­tions in which polit­ical oppon­ents served in those roles. The process was over­hauled in 1804 with the rati­fic­a­tion of the 12th Amend­ment, which required elect­ors to cast votes separ­ately for pres­id­ent and vice pres­id­ent. 

How did slavery shape the Elect­oral College?

At the time of the Consti­tu­tional Conven­tion, the north­ern states and south­ern states had roughly equal popu­la­tions. However, nonvot­ing enslaved people made up about one-third of the south­ern states’ popu­la­tion. As a result, deleg­ates from the South objec­ted to a direct popu­lar vote in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, which would have given their states less elect­oral repres­ent­a­tion.

The debate contrib­uted to the conven­tion’s even­tual decision to estab­lish the Elect­oral College, which applied the three-fifths comprom­ise that had already been devised for appor­tion­ing seats in the House of Repres­ent­at­ives. Three out of five enslaved people were coun­ted as part of a state’s total popu­la­tion, though they were nonethe­less prohib­ited from voting.

Wilfred U. Codring­ton III, an assist­ant professor of law at Brook­lyn Law School and a Bren­nan Center fellow, writes that the South’s elect­oral advant­age contrib­uted to an “almost unin­ter­rup­ted trend” of pres­id­en­tial elec­tion wins by south­ern slave­hold­ers and their north­ern sympath­izers through­out the first half of the 19th century. After the Civil War, in 1876, a contested Elect­oral College outcome was settled by a comprom­ise in which the House awar­ded Ruther­ford B. Hayes the pres­id­ency with the under­stand­ing that he would with­draw milit­ary forces from the South­ern states. This led to the end of Recon­struc­tion and paved the way for racial segreg­a­tion under Jim Crow laws.

Today, Codring­ton argues, the Elect­oral College contin­ues to dilute the polit­ical power of Black voters: “Because the concen­tra­tion of black people is highest in the South, their preferred pres­id­en­tial candid­ate is virtu­ally assured to lose their home states’ elect­oral votes. Despite black voting patterns to the contrary, five of the six states whose popu­la­tions are 25 percent or more black have been reli­ably red in recent pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. … Under the Elect­oral College, black votes are submerged.”

What are faith­less elect­ors? 

Ever since the 19th century reforms, states have expec­ted their elect­ors to honor the will of the voters. In other words, elect­ors are now pledged to vote for the winner of the popu­lar vote in their state. However, the Consti­tu­tion does not require them to do so, which allows for scen­arios in which “faith­less elect­ors” have voted against the popu­lar vote winner in their states. As of 2016, there have been 90 faith­less elect­oral votes cast out of 23,507 in total across all pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. The 2016 elec­tion saw a record-break­ing seven faith­less elect­ors, includ­ing three who voted for former Secret­ary of State Colin Powell, who was not a pres­id­en­tial candid­ate at the time.  

Currently, 33 states and the District of Columbia require their pres­id­en­tial elect­ors to vote for the candid­ate to whom they are pledged. Only 5 states, however, impose a penalty on faith­less elect­ors, and only 14 states provide for faith­less elect­ors to be removed or for their votes to be canceled. In July 2020, the Supreme Court unan­im­ously upheld exist­ing state laws that punish or remove faith­less elect­ors.

What happens if no candid­ate wins a major­ity of Elect­oral College votes?

If no ticket wins a major­ity of Elect­oral College votes, the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion is sent to the House of Repres­ent­at­ives for a runoff. Unlike typical House prac­tice, however, each state only gets one vote, decided by the party that controls the state’s House deleg­a­tion. Mean­while, the vice-pres­id­en­tial race is decided in the Senate, where each member has one vote. This scen­ario has not tran­spired since 1836, when the Senate was tasked with select­ing the vice pres­id­ent after no candid­ate received a major­ity of elect­oral votes.

Are Elect­oral College votes distrib­uted equally between states?

Each state is alloc­ated a number of elect­oral votes based on the total size of its congres­sional deleg­a­tion. This bene­fits smal­ler states, which have at least three elect­oral votes — includ­ing two elect­oral votes tied to their two Senate seats, which are guar­an­teed even if they have a small popu­la­tion and thus a small House deleg­a­tion. Based on popu­la­tion trends, those dispar­it­ies will likely increase as the most popu­lous states are expec­ted to account for an even greater share of the U.S. popu­la­tion in the decades ahead. 

What did the 2020 elec­tion reveal about the Elect­oral College?

In the after­math of the 2020 pres­id­en­tial race, Donald Trump and his allies fueled an effort to over­turn the results of the elec­tion, spread­ing repeated lies about wide­spread voter fraud. This included attempts by a number of state legis­latures to nullify some of their states’ votes, which often targeted juris­dic­tions with large numbers of Black voters. Addi­tion­ally, during the certi­fic­a­tion process for the elec­tion, some members of Congress also objec­ted to the Elect­oral College results, attempt­ing to throw out elect­ors from certain states. While these efforts ulti­mately failed, they revealed yet another vulner­ab­il­ity of the elec­tion system that stems from the Elect­oral College.

What are the poten­tial path­ways to reform?

Abol­ish­ing the Elect­oral College outright would require a consti­tu­tional amend­ment. As a work­around, schol­ars and activ­ist groups have rallied behind the National Popu­lar Vote Inter­state Compact (NPV), an effort that star­ted after the 2000 elec­tion. Under it, parti­cip­at­ing states would commit to award­ing their elect­oral votes to the winner of the national popu­lar vote.

In other words, the NPV would form­ally retain the Elect­oral College but render it moot, ensur­ing that the winner of the national popu­lar vote also wins the pres­id­ency. If enacted, the NPV would incentiv­ize pres­id­en­tial candid­ates to expand their campaign efforts nation­wide, rather than focus only on a small number of swing states.

For the NPV to take effect, it must first be adop­ted by states that control at least 270 elect­oral votes. In 2007, Mary­land became the first state to enact the compact. As of 2019, a total of 19 states and Wash­ing­ton, DC, which collect­ively account for 196 elect­oral votes, have joined.

The public has consist­ently suppor­ted a nation­wide popu­lar vote. A 2020 poll by Pew Research Center, for example, found that 58 percent of adults prefer a system in which the pres­id­en­tial candid­ate who receives the most votes nation­wide wins the pres­id­ency.