Electoral College map from 1896 (The Washington Standard, via Newspapers.com)
The president and vice president of the United States are elected through the U.S. Electoral College, which is outlined in Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution. The Electoral College is composed of “electors” chosen by the voters of each state (plus Washington DC) to cast their state’s electoral votes in a presidential election. The electoral vote, not the popular vote, determines the winner of the presidential election.
How Many Electors Are There?
The total electors (and hence electoral votes) apportioned to each state is equal to the size of its congressional delegation–in other words, the number of members it has in the U.S. House of Representatives plus its two senators. Since the 1960s, Washington DC has had 3 electoral votes.
The current number of electors is 538. To win the election, a candidate needs a majority of electoral votes, which has been 270 since 1964.
How Are Electors Chosen?
Before a presidential election, each political party in a state selects a slate of prospective electors who pledge to vote for that party’s ticket in the Electoral College. During the election, even though the names of presidential and vice presidential candidates appear on the ballot, citizens are actually voting for the electors pledged to those candidates, not the candidates themselves.
Almost all states use a “winner take all” system, in which all the state’s electoral votes are cast by the slate of electors pledged to the ticket that won the statewide popular vote. Maine and Nebraska, however, use a proportional system based on congressional districts.
What is the Role of Electors?
After a presidential election, the winning slate of electors meets at the state capitol and casts their votes for president and vice president. This occurs in December, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday (though in modern times, the outcome of the election is typically known before this). Although there is no Constitutional mandate requiring electors to vote for the candidate they are pledged to, many states have laws that require it.
After the electors cast their votes, the votes are sent to the U.S. Congress, where they are counted and certified in a joint session in January.
What Happens if the Electoral Vote Isn’t Decisive?
If no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the U.S. Congress holds a “contingent election.” In this circumstance, the House of Representatives votes for president, and the Senate votes for vice president. The House of Representatives has chosen the president twice: in the 1800 and 1824 elections. The vice president has been chosen by the Senate once–in the 1836 election.
In the Electoral College system, it’s possible for the candidate with the most popular votes to receive less than the majority of electoral votes and thus lose the election. This has happened 5 times: in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.
Can the Electoral College be Changed?
The Electoral College process has changed over time, including alterations made through the Twelfth (1804) and Twenty-Third (1961) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It would require a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College.
Learn more about the U.S. Electoral College through historical newspapers from our archives. Explore newspaper articles, headlines, images, and other primary sources below.
Articles and Clippings about the U.S. Electoral College
Newspaper excerpt of Article II, Section I, of the U.S. Constitution discussing Electoral College Wed, Sep 19, 1787 – Page 2 · The Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com1788 notice about an election in MD "for eight electors for the purpose of choosing the president" Thu, Dec 25, 1788 – 3 · Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, Maryland) · Newspapers.comCongress counts electoral votes in first U.S. presidential election, 1789 Sat, Oct 17, 1789 – 2 · The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com1800 presidential election to be decided by U.S. House of Reps after tie between Jefferson & Burr Thu, Feb 26, 1801 – 2 · The Morning Post (London, Greater London, England) · Newspapers.comExcerpt from a 1803 speech opposing the 12th Amendment's proposed changes to the Electoral College Sat, Jan 14, 1804 – Page 2 · The Evening Post (New York, New York) · Newspapers.com1824 election decided by U.S. House of Reps after no candidate gets majority of electoral votes Fri, Feb 18, 1825 – Page 2 · North-Carolina Free Press (Halifax, North Carolina) · Newspapers.comProposed amendment to U.S. Constitution in 1825 calls for president to be elected by popular vote Sat, Feb 26, 1825 – 2 · The National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.comU.S. Senate decides 1836 vice presidential election after no one gets electoral vote majority Wed, Mar 1, 1837 – Page 2 · Constantine Republican (Constantine, Michigan) · Newspapers.comFinal electoral votes in controversial 1876 election are counted in joint session of U.S. Congress Fri, Mar 9, 1877 – 7 · The Head-light (Thayer, Kansas) · Newspapers.comU.S. Congress makes changes to when presidential electors meet to cast their votes Fri, Dec 7, 1888 – 1 · The Washington Standard (Olympia, Washington) · Newspapers.comDescription of U.S. Congress counting electoral votes in 1888 presidential election Sat, Feb 23, 1889 – 2 · The Sun (Glasco, Kansas) · Newspapers.com1892 newspaper piece about the history of the Electoral College Wed, Dec 7, 1892 – 3 · Memphis Weekly Commerial (Memphis, Tennessee) · Newspapers.comCanadian newspaper explains U.S. Electoral College ahead of 1920 presidential election Sat, Oct 30, 1920 – 14 · The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Quebec, Canada) · Newspapers.comTennessee residents write to newspaper with their opinions on the Electoral College in 1940 Sun, Nov 24, 1940 – 33 · The Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tennessee) · Newspapers.comPhoto of "how electors vote" from 1940 Kansas Wed, Dec 11, 1940 – 18 · The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri) · Newspapers.comRatification of 23rd Amendment gives electoral votes to Washington DC in presidential elections Thu, Mar 30, 1961 – Page 12 · Fort Lauderdale News (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) · Newspapers.com1968 editorial about Electoral College reform that mentions role played by slavery & 3/5 Compromise Fri, Nov 8, 1968 – Page 6 · Herald and Review (Decatur, Illinois) · Newspapers.comAmendment to abolish Electoral College shelved by U.S. Senate after passage by House of Reps, 1970 Tue, Oct 6, 1970 – 3 · The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) · Newspapers.comTwo opposing arguments about the Electoral College published in 1984 Thu, Nov 15, 1984 – 4 · Telegraph-Forum (Bucyrus, Ohio) · Newspapers.comDifferent opinions about the Electoral College from 1996 Sun, Oct 20, 1996 – 12 · The Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey) · Newspapers.comIowa newspaper front page following U.S. Supreme Court Bush v. Gore ruling during the 2000 election Wed, Dec 13, 2000 – 1 · The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) · Newspapers.comTimeline of 2000 election, in which George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote Thu, Dec 14, 2000 – 19 · The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) · Newspapers.comMap and graphics showing popular and electoral vote totals in 2016 presidential election Sat, Nov 12, 2016 – A6 · Baraboo News Republic (Baraboo, Wisconsin) · Newspapers.com