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Electoral College

Definition: The Electoral College is a body of 538 electors that determine the official outcome of the Presidential elections. Each state’s representation in the Electoral College is based on the state population (two per state, plus one for each Congressional district). Washington, DC has three electoral votes, but other U.S. territories do not have any. After the votes are cast on Election Day, electors gather in their respective state capitols to cast votes for President and Vice President based on their state’s popular vote. The vote is then certified. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, which use a district-based electoral system, votes are awarded winner-take-all — a candidate just needs to receive 51% of the popular vote to receive all the state’s electoral votes. Each state decides how electors are chosen; no person holding elected or appointed federal office can serve as an elector. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win; if no one reaches that threshold the House of Representatives determines the President.

Used in a Sentence: “The election night drama of 2000 may be recreated this year, as experts say there is a real chance for one presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the presidency thanks to the Electoral College system.” (from U.S. News article “Electoral College, Popular Vote Split is Possible, Experts Say”)

What it Means: What really matters in an election is getting 270 electoral votes. Under the Electoral College system, the winner of the popular vote can lose an election — it has happened five times, in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. The distribution of votes across the country is important; while the popular vote may swing in favor of one candidate, if the votes are concentrated in certain states, they may not have enough electoral votes to win.

History: The roots of the Electoral College go back to the founding fathers’ debate over the extent to which the United States would be a federal system. Virginia delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention proposed having Congress elect the President. Out of concerns about separation of powers and the independence of the President, the “Committee of Eleven” recommended that there be an independent group of electors, apportioned to states in equal numbers as their representation in Congress. This indirect election mechanism was then incorporated into the Constitution; Article II, Section 1 refers to a system of Presidential “electors” and lays out the framework for the Electoral College. While the Constitution describes this system and the role of these electors, the term “Electoral College” was not used until 1845. Throughout U.S. history there have been more than 700 proposals to reform the Electoral College, including efforts to change to a proportional vote base rather than winner-take-all and to abolish the system completely and rely on popular vote as the sole electoral method.