Q&A: What is the Electoral College and how does it work in presidential elections?

WASHINGTON - The Electoral College is an obscure and little understood part of every presidential election, but it is taking center stage in this year's neck-and-neck race for the White House between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Just ahead of Election Day on Tuesday, the contest is so close some predict one candidate could take the popular vote while the other comes out ahead in the Electoral College.

Presidential Race note: We have an interactive map on http://www.kjrh.com/elections that will be updated tonight after each state's choice for the next president is determined by the Associated Press.

But to win, a candidate must have a majority of Electoral College votes.

Some view the Electoral College as a stumbling block to real democracy, robbing the popular vote of importance. Others contend it ensures fairness and keeps states' power intact.

In any case, the Electoral College is tied to the popular vote and deeply influences campaigning. Here's a look at how it works:

Q. What is the Electoral College?

A: It's actually a process -- not a place -- that the Founding Fathers set up in the Constitution to choose a president. They decided "electors" would pick the president as a compromise between allowing Congress to elect the nation's chief executive and allowing a vote of the people to decide who would lead the nation.

The number of electors is 538. A presidential candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to win.

Q: What happens in the Electoral College process?

A: First, each state selects electors, who can be ordinary or prominent citizens. How they do it varies by state. After Election Day, electors get together in each state to vote for president and vice president on separate ballots. That happens Dec. 17 in this presidential election. Finally, Congress counts the votes in a joint session Jan. 6 to make the results official.

Q: If the Electoral College chooses the president, does my vote count?

A: When a voter goes into a polling booth and casts a ballot for president, he's actually choosing his candidate's electors. The electors have pledged to vote in sync with their state's popular vote.

Q: Do electors have to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states?

A: They aren't bound by any federal provision to vote in accordance with the popular vote, but about 26 states and the District of Columbia have laws or political-party pledges restricting electors. Sometimes an elector votes against the popular vote in his state, thus earning the title "faithless elector."

Q: Who are the electors?

 

A: They're often people who political party leaders feel have been dedicated and deserve recognition. They could be state officials, party leaders or people with special ties to a presidential candidate. Members of Congress are not eligible to be electors.

Usually, state parties nominate electors at state conventions or their executive committee votes on them.

Q: How many electors does each state have?

A: Each state has the same number of electors as members in its congressional delegation. For instance, Texas has 38 electors total, equal to the state's allotment of 36 members in the House of Representatives and two senators.

Highly populated states like Texas have more electoral votes. California has the most with 55. Texas has the second most, followed by New York and Florida, each with 29. A constitutional amendment gives the District of Columbia three electors and the right to be treated like a state in the Electoral College. Three is the smallest number of electors for any state.

Q: How is it possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College vote or vice versa?

A: Most states have a winner-takes-all rule, so whichever candidate receives a majority of the popular vote -- or what's called a plurality -- takes all of the state's Electoral College votes. A plurality is less than 50 percent of the popular vote but more than any other candidate.

So even if a candidate wins, for instance, just 50.1 percent of the popular vote in a state, he wins all of the electoral votes in that state. The exceptions to the winner-takes-all rule are Maine and Nebraska.

Q: When was the last time a candidate won the popular vote but not the Electoral College vote?

A: In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote by about 540,000 votes to former Vice President Al Gore. But Bush was declared the winner with 271 electoral votes to Gore's 266 -- following a Supreme Court ruling resulting in awarding Florida's then-25 electoral votes to Bush. But the election of a president who didn't win the popular vote is a highly unusual scenario in U.S. history.

Q: What happens if there's a tie and each presidential candidate gets 269 Electoral College votes?

A. If no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, then the members of the House of Representatives pick the president. Each state's congressional delegation gets

a single vote -- not each member. The delegations choose among the three presidential candidates who garnered the most electoral votes.

If the House doesn't elect a president by Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, then the vice president elect -- chosen by U.S. senators -- becomes acting president until the House elects the country's chief executive.

Senators pick a vice president from the top two electoral vote getters among vice presidential candidates. Each of the 100 senators gets a vote.

Q: Why do some critics want to change or get rid of the Electoral College?

A: They say the system is outdated and ineffective, and that the Electoral College unjustly takes the power out of voters' hands and even suppresses voter turnout.

They note the Electoral College was created at a time when information was not as easily accessible as today, and the framers of the Constitution feared a popular vote would leave the fate of the presidency in the hands of the ill informed.

Q: Why do others support keeping the Electoral College in place?

A: They say the system distributes influence among highly populated areas and rural areas. States with lower populations such as Wyoming, for instance, have more say in the Electoral College system, so candidates don't focus only on metropolitan areas. They have to have widespread support to win.

Supporters also argue that minority interests are better served. Minorities can sway the outcome of elections better under the system. They also contend the Electoral College serves the Founding Fathers' intention that states retain key political powers.

Q: How does the Electoral College affect campaigning?

A: Presidential candidates don't usually organize their campaigns just by the number of electoral votes to be had in a state. They zero in on swing states -- also called battleground or purple states.

In a winner-takes-all world, they could be the difference between winning and losing the election. So in this election, Obama has all but ignored Texas and its 38 electoral votes because the super-red state is certain to go to Romney.

But Romney isn't lavishing Texas with attention, either, since he knows it's in the bag for him. Instead, both candidates are focusing on states that could go either way like Colorado, Florida, Virginia and Ohio.

(Reach Scripps Howard News Service Washington correspondent Trish Choate at choatet@shns.com.)

Print this article Back to Top

Comments

Editorial and Opinion Pieces

Who should be the next U.S. president? Mitt Romney or Barack Obama Who should be the next U.S. president? Mitt Romney or Barack Obama

OPINION | Voters on Tuesday will go to the polls to decide which man -- Mitt Romney or Barack Obama -- will occupy the White House for the next four years. So who should win?

Editorial: Newest economic news may be good enough for President Barack Obama Editorial: Newest economic news may be good enough for President Barack Obama

OPINION | For President Barack Obama's re-election hopes, it has always been a race between the economy and Election Day.

OPINION: Mitt Romney, a decent leader OPINION: Mitt Romney, a decent leader

Compare the political philosophies of President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, and what you see over there in the left corner of the ring is Big, Big Government -- runaway spending as the answer to everything, more intervention, more control, an attitude of Washington knows best.

OPINION: Why Mitt Romney shouldn OPINION: Why Mitt Romney shouldn't be president

I hoped for serious discussions of how to pay for Social Security and Medicare. I wanted real talk about rebuilding America's infrastructure and improving public education. I wanted ideas for restoring the middle class and motivating young people to realize their stake in the country's future.

OPINION - Mitt Romney displayed unusual strategy for winning during foreign policy debate OPINION - Mitt Romney displayed unusual strategy for winning during foreign policy debate

OPINION | Back in his first campaign confrontation with President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney showed he knew how to win a debate. Monday night he showed he knew how to lose a debate -- in the hopes of winning the presidency.

OPINION: Anthem could bring note of civility to debates OPINION: Anthem could bring note of civility to debates

OPINION | Listening to the national anthem before the start of the baseball championship game Monday night, an hour or so before the final presidential debate was to start, we wondered about the custom of beginning a game with the anthem, sung a cappella, before a hushed stadium.

OPINION: Breaking down the foreign policy presidential debate between Obama and Romney OPINION: Breaking down the foreign policy presidential debate between Obama and Romney

The economy is in the worst recovery since World War II, the world is likewise a scary mess, and so maybe it wasn't surprising in a debate on foreign issues Monday night that the President sought refuge in pettiness.

OPINION: A recovery that wasn OPINION: A recovery that wasn't, poverty rates high and median incomes down

The recovery, mugged by a pork-ridden stimulus and a malicious gang of other misconceived policies, is limping along more weakly than any recovery since World War II.

OPINION: Pros, cons of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney OPINION: Pros, cons of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

We lurch from debate to debate, poll to poll, leaked video to calamity overseas. One day we decide we'll settle for Obama. The next, we're leaning toward rolling the dice and taking a chance on Romney.