How does the Electoral College work?

Sep 25, 2020, 1:32 PM
white house electoral college...
Photo: Getty Images

Established by the United States Constitution, the Electoral College forms every four years to elect the president and vice president.

How the Electoral College works

Each state’s electors are equal to the number of members in Congress from each state. For instance, Utah has four House representatives in addition to two senators. Therefore, Utah will receive six electoral votes in 2020.

The Senate is composed of 100 senators and the House, 435 representatives. The 23rd Amendment to the Constitution provides the District of Columbia with a number of electors equal to, but no more than, the least populous state, which is currently three. U.S. territories do not receive any electors.

As a result, 538 electors make up the Electoral College. That means a candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to win the election.

Does every Electoral College vote go to the state’s winner? Not necessarily

The candidate who wins the plurality of each state’s vote tally wins that state’s electors in 48 states and the District of Columbia. In Maine and Nebraska, two electors are assigned in this way; in those two states, electors divide the remaining electoral votes based on the plurality of votes in each congressional district.

States generally require electors to vote for the winner of each state’s vote. Most states have enacted laws to avoid “faithless electors.”

When does the Electoral College meet? 

Electors meet in their state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes. Congress tabulates the results during the first week of January. If neither candidate wins a majority, each state receives one vote for a presidential election session in the House. In the Senate, each senator may cast one vote to elect the vice president.

The president is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Can you lose the popular vote but win the election? Yes.

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won the Electoral College with 304 votes compared to 227 votes for Hillary Clinton. Clinton received 2.87 million more votes than Trump, which was the fifth and most recent presidential election in which the winning candidate lost the popular vote. 

For more information, see the below graphic from the Associated Press. 

electoral college

Graphic shows scenario in which a presidential candidate can win the popular vote but lose the election. Graphic: AP


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How does the Electoral College work?