US Government and Politics
The Electoral College
UNIT 3A : OUTLINE: KEY CONCEPTS
Open, closed and invisible primaries
The caucus system
The balanced ticket
Candidate and issue centred campaigns
Soft and hard money
Insider and outsider candidates
OUTLINE: KEY IDEAS
Answering questions on this topic requires
The main characteristics of presidential and
congressional elections and campaigns.
The main influences on their outcomes.
Candidate selection and nomination through the
primary and caucus system and the role of the
national nominating conventions
Debates concerning the workings and
outcomes of the Electoral College and its
impact on campaigns
OUTLINE: KEY IDEAS
Answering questions on this topic requires
The significance of money as a factor in electoral
The impact of the media on campaigns and candidates
Direct democracy at State level through the use of
Initiatives, propositions and recall elections, and
debates concerning their use
Comparisons with the UK electoral process to illustrate
As most Americans learned in school and re-learned
during the 2000 election, Americans do not directly
elect their presidents and vice presidents.
They actually elect "electors," who make up the
Electoral College and cast the critical electoral votes
for the nation's top two jobs.
How are electors chosen?
The political parties (or independent candidates) in each
state submit to the state's chief election official a list of
individuals pledged to their candidate for president and
equal in number to the state's electoral vote. Usually, the
major political parties select these individuals either in
their state party conventions or through appointment by
their state party leaders, while third parties and
independent candidates merely designate theirs.
Who cannot serve as an elector?
Members of Congress and employees of the federal government
are prohibited from serving as electors in order to maintain the
balance between the legislative and executive branches of the
How many electors does each state get?
Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number
of its U.S. senators plus the number of its U.S. representatives.
How does a presidential ticket win electoral votes?
Whichever party slate wins the most popular votes in the state
becomes that state's electors -- so that, in effect, whichever
presidential ticket gets the most popular votes in a state wins all
the electors of that state.
The two exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska, where two
electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the
remainder by the popular vote within each congressional
When are electoral votes cast?
On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December
(Monday, Dec. 13 this year), each state's electors meet in their
respective state capitals and cast their electoral votes -- one for
president and one for vice president.
In order to prevent electors from voting only for "favourite
sons" of their home state, at least one of their votes must be for
a person from outside their state, though this is seldom a
problem since the parties have consistently nominated
presidential and vice presidential candidates from different
When are the electoral votes announced?
The electoral votes are then sealed and transmitted from each state to the
president of the Senate who, on Jan. 6, opens and reads them before both
houses of the Congress.
How are a president and vice president chosen?
The candidate for president with the most electoral votes, provided that it is
an absolute majority (one vote over half of the total), is declared president.
Similarly, the vice presidential candidate with the absolute majority of
electoral votes is declared vice president.
What if no presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral
In the event that no one obtains an absolute majority of electoral votes for
president, the U.S. House of Representatives selects the president from
among the top three contenders, with each state casting only one vote and
an absolute majority of the states being required to elect. This has happened
twice in American history. If it were to happen this cycle, President Bush
would likely win re-election; a majority of the 50 congressional delegations
are dominated by Republicans. Similarly, if no one obtains an absolute
majority for vice president, then the U.S. Senate makes the selection from
among the top two contenders for that office.
When are the new president and vice president sworn in?
At noon on Jan. 20, the duly elected president and vice president are sworn
What are the arguments in favour of the Electoral College?
A common argument in favour of the Electoral College is that it forces the
candidates to pay more attention to less-populated states that they would
otherwise ignore. Those who are proponents of the two-party system claim
the winner-takes-all result of the Electoral College helps avoid political
instability and deadlock that would arise should the system be broken. Some
argue the Electoral College system gives power to minority groups by
allowing a relatively small number of voters in each state to make a
difference in determining which candidate gets that state's electoral votes.
Others argue the Electoral College maintains the federal system of
government, which was designed to reserve such important political powers
to the states as making a choice for the presidency and vice presidency.
What are the arguments against the Electoral College?
Some argue against the (mostly) winner-takes-all system allows for a
candidate who loses the popular vote (as happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and
2000) to win the presidency. Opponents claim it discourages voter turnout
by making people feel their vote does not make a difference in
noncompetitive states. Some say it violates the "one-person, one-vote" ideal
since each state has a minimum of three electors, regardless of its
population. This gives residents of the smallest states, which based on their
population might otherwise be entitled to just one or two electors, more
influence than residents of larger states. The current system does not require
electors to vote the way they are pledged. This is an argument of lesser
consequence, as the situation rarely happens, but there is, in fact, nothing
preventing electors from voting for whom they choose.