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Electoral College FAQ

How did we get the Electoral College?

The Framers established the Electoral College in the Constitution as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens. However, the term electoral college does not appear in the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution and the 12th Amendment refer to electors, but not to the electoral college.

Since the Electoral College process is part of the original design of the U.S. Constitution it would be necessary to pass a Constitutional amendment to change this system.

Note that the 12th Amendment, the expansion of voting rights, and the use of the popular vote in the States as the vehicle for selecting electors has substantially changed the process.

Many different proposals to alter the Presidential election process have been offered over the years, such as direct nation-wide election by the People, but none have been passed by Congress and sent to the States for ratification as a Constitutional amendment. Under the most common method for amending the Constitution, an amendment must be proposed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the States.

What proposals have been made to change the Electoral College?

Reference sources indicate that over the past 200 years, over 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject. The American Bar Association has criticized the Electoral College as “archaic” and “ambiguous” and its polling showed 69 percent of lawyers favored abolishing it in 1987. But surveys of political scientists have supported continuation of the Electoral College. Public opinion polls have shown Americans favored abolishing it by majorities of 58 percent in 1967; 81 percent in 1968; and 75 percent in 1981.

Opinions on the viability of the Electoral College system may be affected by attitudes toward third parties. Third parties have not fared well in the Electoral College system. Candidates with regional appeal such as Governor Thurmond in 1948 and Governor Wallace in 1968, won blocs of electoral votes in the South. Neither come close to seriously challenging the major party winner, but they may have affected the overall outcome of the election.

The last third party, or splinter party, candidate to make a strong showing was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (Progressive, also known as the Bull Moose Party). He finished a distant second in Electoral and popular votes (taking 88 of the 266 electoral votes needed to win at the time). Although Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote nationwide in 1992, he did not win any Electoral votes since he was not particularly strong in any one state. Any candidate who wins a majority or plurality of the popular vote nationwide has a good chance of winning in the Electoral College, but there are no guarantees (see the results of 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 elections).

Who are the Electors and how can I contact them?

Each state and the District of Columbia will appoint the Electors after it certifies the general election results. Each will then prepare a Certificate of Ascertainment which will contain the names of the Electors and the number of votes they received. Certificates of Ascertainment also may contain the party affiliation for electors. We post them as we receive them from the states and announce them using Facebook and Twitter. You’ll find the posted Certificates on our website here.

However, we do not receive the names of the electors until we receive the Certificates of Ascertainment. To find out the names earlier, you would need to contact each state and the District of Columbia individually to request the contact information for their electors. National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) can help you find contact information for the states.

Some states release the slates of all potential Electors before the general election and some states include the names of the potential Electors on the general election ballot. How each state approaches these issues is up to the state.

Whether or when a state releases contact or other information about out the Electors is also up to the state.

Who verifies if a candidate is qualified to run for President?

The Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives and Records Administration administers the Electoral College process, which takes place after the November general election. The Office of the Federal Register does not have the authority to handle issues related to the general election, such as candidate qualifications. People interested in this issue may wish to contact their state election officials or their Congressional Representatives.

Because the process of qualifying for the election and having a candidate’s name put on the ballot varies from state to state, you should contact your state’s top election officer for more information. In most states, the Secretary of State is the official responsible for oversight of state elections, including the presidential election. Visit the National Secretaries of State web site to locate contact information and web addresses for the Secretary of State from each state and the District of Columbia.

What happens if the President-elect fails to qualify before inauguration?

If the President-elect fails to qualify before inauguration, Section 3 of the 20th Amendment states that the Vice President-elect will act as President until such a time as a President has qualified.

The Constitution also directs Congress to determine by law a successive line of service to be called upon in the unlikely occurrence that both the President-elect and Vice President-elect fail to qualify by the beginning of the presidential term. Accordingly, federal law (3 U.S.C. Sec. 19) states that, in order, the following would be required, if qualified and, for Cabinet secretaries, if having been confirmed by advice and consent of the Senate, to act as President until such a time as a President has qualified:

  • the Speaker of the House of Representatives
    the President pro tempore of the Senate
    the Secretary of State
    the Secretary of the Treasury
    the Secretary of Defense
    the Attorney General
    the Secretary of the Interior
    the Secretary of Agriculture
    the Secretary of Commerce
    the Secretary of Labor
    the Secretary of Health and Human Services
    the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
    the Secretary of Transportation
    the Secretary of Energy
    the Secretary of Education, and
    the Secretary of Veterans Affa

What happens if a candidate dies or becomes incapacitated?

If that candidate dies or becomes incapacitated between the general election and the meeting of electors individual states may pass laws on the subject, but no federal law proscribes how electors must vote in that situation. In 1872, when Horace Greeley passed away between election day and the meeting of electors, the electors who were slated to vote for Greeley voted for various candidates, including Greeley. The votes cast for Greeley were not counted due to a House resolution passed regarding the matter. See the full Electoral College vote counts for President and Vice President in the 1872 election.

As to a candidate who dies or becomes incapacitated between the meeting of electors and the counting of electoral votes in Congress, the Constitution is silent on whether this candidate meets the definition of “President elect” or “Vice President elect.” If the candidate with a majority of the electoral votes is considered “President elect,” even before the counting of electoral votes in Congress, Section 3 of the 20th Amendment applies. Section 3 of the 20th Amendment states that the Vice President elect will become President if the President elect dies or becomes incapacitated.

If a winning Presidential candidate dies or becomes incapacitated between the counting of electoral votes in Congress and the inauguration, the Vice President elect will become President, according to Section 3 of the 20th Amendment.

What happens if the States don’t submit their Certificates in time because of a re-count?

Title 3 of the United States Code establishes procedures for the Electoral College process and provides that states have until December 13th to settle any controversies regarding their electors. It is up to Congress to determine what to do in the event one or more States cannot meet the statutory deadlines. Here’s the timeline:

December 13, 2016: States must make final decisions in any controversies over the appointment of their electors at least six days before the meeting of the Electors. This is so their electoral votes will be presumed valid when presented to Congress. Decisions by states’ courts are conclusive, if decided under laws enacted before Election Day.

December 19, 2016: The Electors meet in their state and vote for President and Vice President on separate ballots.

December 28, 2016: Electoral votes (the Certificates of Vote) must be received by the President of the Senate and the Archivist.

January 6, 2017: The Congress meets in joint session to count the electoral votes. The Vice President, as President of the Senate, is the presiding officer. Two tellers are appointed to open, present and record the votes of the States in alphabetical order. The President of the Senate announces the results of the vote and declares which persons, if any, have been elected President and Vice President of the United States. The results are entered into the official journals of the House and Senate. The President of the Senate then calls for objections to be made. If any objections are registered, they must be submitted in writing and be signed by at least one member of the House and Senate. The House and Senate would withdraw to their respective chambers to consider the merits of any objections according the procedure set out under 3 U.S.C. section 15.

How is it possible for the electoral vote to produce a different result than the nation-wide popular vote?

It is imperative to remember that the President is not chosen by a nation-wide popular vote. Our form of government is best described as a constitutional republic and, although democratic in nature, it is not a democracy. The Electoral College vote totals determine the winner, not the statistical plurality or majority a candidate may have in the nation-wide popular vote totals. Electoral votes are awarded on the basis of the popular vote in each state.

Note that 48 out of the 50 States award Electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis (as does the District of Columbia). For example, all 55 of California’s Electoral votes go to the winner of the state election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.

In a multi-candidate race where candidates have strong regional appeal, as in 1824, it is quite possible that a candidate who collects the most votes on a nation-wide basis will not win the electoral vote. In a two-candidate race, that is less likely to occur. But, it did occur in the Hayes/Tilden election of 1876 and the Harrison/Cleveland election of 1888 due to the statistical disparity between vote totals in individual state elections and the national vote totals. This also occurred in the 2000 presidential election, where George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.

What is the difference between the winner-takes-all rule and proportional voting, and which states follow which rule?

The District of Columbia and 48 states have a winner-takes-all rule for the Electoral College. In these States, whichever candidate receives a majority of the popular vote, or a plurality of the popular vote (less than 50 percent but more than any other candidate), takes all of the state’s Electoral votes.

Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, do not follow the winner-takes-all rule. In those states, there could be a split of Electoral votes among candidates through the state’s system for proportional allocation of votes. For example, Maine has four Electoral votes and two Congressional districts. It awards one Electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the state-wide, “at-large” vote. It is possible for Candidate A to win the first district and receive one Electoral vote, Candidate B to win the second district and receive one Electoral vote, and Candidate C, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large Electoral votes. Although this is a possible scenario, it has not actually happened.

What happens if no presidential candidate gets 270 Electoral votes?

If no candidate receives a majority of Electoral votes, the House of Representatives elects the President from the 3 Presidential candidates who received the most Electoral votes. Each state delegation has one vote. The Senate would elect the Vice President from the 2 Vice Presidential candidates with the most Electoral votes. Each Senator would cast one vote for Vice President. If the House of Representatives fails to elect a President by Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect serves as acting President until the deadlock is resolved in the House.

What would happen if two candidates tied in a state’s popular vote, or if there was a dispute as to the winner?

A tie is a statistically remote possibility even in smaller states. But if a state’s popular vote were to come out as a tie between candidates, state law would govern as to what procedure would be followed in breaking the tie. A tie would not be known of until late November or early December, after a recount and after the Secretary of State had certified the election results. Federal law would allow a state to hold a run-off election.

A very close finish could also result in a run-off election or legal action to decide the winner. Under Federal law (3 U.S.C. section 5), state law governs on this issue, and would be conclusive in determining the selection of Electors. The law provides that if states have laws to determine controversies or contests as to the selection of Electors, those determinations must be completed six days prior to the day the Electors meet.

What impact does a candidate’s concession speech have on the Electoral College process?

None. A candidate’s concession speech does not impact the states’ duties and responsibilities related to the Electoral College system.

How many times has the Vice President been chosen by the U.S. Senate?

Once. In the Presidential election of 1836, the election for Vice President was decided in the Senate. Martin Van Buren’s running mate, Richard M. Johnson, fell one vote short of a majority in the Electoral College. Vice Presidential candidates Francis Granger and Johnson had a “run-off” in the Senate under the 12th Amendment, where Johnson was elected 33 votes to 17.

Can electoral votes be contested when Congress counts the votes in January?

Under federal law an objection to a state’s Electoral votes may be made to the President of the Senate during Congress’s counting of Electoral votes in January. The objection must be made in writing and signed by at least one Senator and one member of the House of Representatives. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives debate the objection separately.

Debate is limited to two hours. After the debate, both the Senate and the House of Representatives rejoin and both must agree to reject the votes.

In January 2005, Ohio’s 20 Electoral votes were challenged. After debate, the Senate and the House failed to agree to reject the votes. Ohio’s 20 Electoral votes for President Bush and Vice President Cheney were counted.

Can citizens of U.S. Territories vote for President?

No, the Electoral College system does not provide for residents of U.S. Territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands) to vote for President. Unless citizens in U.S. Territories have official residency (domicile) in a U.S. State or the District of Columbia (and vote by absentee ballot or travel to their State to vote), they cannot vote in the presidential election. Note that prior to the adoption of the 23rd Amendment, DC residents could not vote in the Presidential election.

The political parties may authorize voters in primary elections in Territories to select delegates to represent them at the political party conventions. But that process does not affect the Electoral College system.