The Electoral College is the process we use to elect the U.S. president. Established in the U.S. Constitution, its purpose is to spread the power to elect the president across all 50 states. It was designed to ensure that the more populous states didn’t overpower the smaller states when choosing the nation’s leader.
How it works
When you cast a vote for a presidential candidate, you’re not actually voting for the president; you’re voting for a group of people called “electors.” Electors are the individuals who form the Electoral College. Each elector represents one electoral vote. A total of 538 electors form the Electoral College.
Each state has its own number of electors, which equals its number of Senators (2 for each state) and Representatives (based on the state’s population) in Congress. Georgia has 2 senators and 14 Representatives, so we have 16 electors. States with more people are represented by more electoral votes, and vice versa.
The winning number
Electors meet to vote in December of a presidential election year. Since 1911, when the current size of the U.S. House of Representatives was established, the number of electoral votes needed to capture the majority in the Electoral College is 270. But what if no one wins the required 270? The framers of the Constitution knew this might happen, so they provided a solution: The House of Representatives votes for president, and the Senate votes for vice president.
Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, this has happened twice. The first was in 1807, in the presidential race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The second time was in 1825, in the race between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.
The Constitution doesn’t provide specific instructions on how to nominate candidates for the Electoral College. It only states that electors can’t be members of Congress or currently hold federal office. For most states, though, electors are chosen by state party convention or by state party committee.
Electors are usually nominated because they are loyal and dedicated members of the party. These individuals may be state and local elected officials, party leaders, retired politicians, party activists, or someone who’s personally or professionally connected to the candidate.
Systems for electoral votes
There are two systems that states use for electoral votes, the Winner-Takes-All System and the District System.
The winner-takes-all system
In Georgia and 47 other states and the District of Columbia, electors vote according to who wins the total popular vote. So, if the Republican candidate wins the popular vote, that party’s electors vote for their candidate to become president of the United States. If the Democrat’s candidate wins our state’s popular vote on Election Day, our 16 electors nominated by the Democratic Party will be sent to the Electoral College to elect their candidate.
The district system
There are only 2 states that don’t use the winner-take-all system: Maine and Nebraska. For these states, the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in each congressional district receives 1 electoral vote; the candidate who wins the most votes statewide receives the remaining electoral votes.
Electoral votes trump the popular vote
More often than not, the candidate who wins the popular vote also wins the Electoral College vote. But it is possible for a candidate to win via Electoral votes alone. This has happened 5 times:
1876 – Rutherford B. Hayes versus Samuel J. Tilden
1888 – Benjamin Harrison versus Grover Cleveland
2000 – George W. Bush versus Al Gore
2016 – Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton
Learn more about the Electoral College.