How Does the Electoral College Work?

The Electoral College is an entity that was created by the writers of the United States Constitution. Because the original colonies that came together to create the United States of America greatly feared mob rule, which some felt would happen with a direct presidential election, the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College, which has become an integral part of our election system. Under this system, voters who vote for president are not actually voting for that candidate, but are actually voting for electors who should then vote for that particular candidate.

Under the Electoral College system, each state is given electors during a presidential election. The number of electors is equal to the number of senators and representatives the state has in the U.S. legislature. Three additional electors were added to represent the nation's capital in the Twenty-third Amendment, which makes 538 total electors. With this structure, states with larger populations have significantly more electors than small states.

Presidential elections are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years. After the results have been tallied, the Electoral College meets on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes. In most elections, the electors will vote for the candidates that the people chose through the popular vote. However, this is not required by law. The Founding Fathers felt that there would potentially be times when the people would not know which candidate would be the best president, and as a result the electors can choose to vote against the popular vote. Today this is rare, but it is possible.

Some states have made laws that require the electors to vote according to the will of the people. Other states have separate groups of electors for each party, and these electors are bound to vote for the their party's candidate. When the votes are tallied, these states send the appropriate electors to the December vote, thus ensuring that the choice the people made is followed. However, not all states have these provisions, so it is entirely possible for an elector to vote for a candidate that did not win the popular vote in her state.

Because of the Electoral College system, the president can actually gain the White House without winning the popular vote. With 538 electors, the winning candidate must have 270 votes to win the election. Since most states send all of their electors to the candidate who won the popular vote in that state, a candidate could receive a lot of electoral votes from a state that actually had a close election. This could, theoretically, allow the candidate to win the national election without winning the popular vote. Additionally, in a situation where there are more than two candidates, no one could end up winning the electoral vote. In this situation, the Twelfth Amendment allows the House of Representatives to choose the president through a majority vote wherein each state receives just one vote.