How is the President of the United States Elected? The Answer May Surprise You.


(Minnesota Historical Society)

*** Author disclaimer: This article is not an argument for or against the method of electing the president and vice president, rather it is an attempt to explain the system to the layman.  Because the author is a Canadian, the perspective is unique 



The general election is indirect. The president is not elected directly by the ballots of the voters. The “Electoral College” elects the president and vice president.

There is no such thing as the “popular vote” in an election for president.  It is the total of the ballots cast for the Electors representing each candidate. It is not officially compiled because it has nothing to do with the results of the election and is not binding in any way. The media always likes to make a big thing about the popular vote versus electoral vote, but really the only thing that counts is the Electoral Vote.

What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College consists of the Electors as defined in the Constitution of the United States.  It is a body of proxies which carries out the last step in the election of the President and Vice President of the United States.

The system of Electors now referred to as the “Electoral College” was established by the Constitution of the United States, Article Two, Section I, and the 12th Amendment.  The Office of the Federal Register administers the College.  The meetings of the Electors in each state are administered by the states.

How are Electors selected?

Here is what the Constitution of the United States, Article II, Section I states:

 “Each state shall appoint, in such a manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector”. 

Presidential elections are held every four years.  The President of the United States is elected for a term of four years.


Who are these Electors anyway?

Most are party regulars within their states.  There are Electors representing the Republican and the Democratic parties. If there are other independent or third party candidates on the ballot, then they also have Electors representing them. 


How is it determined how many Electoral Votes each State has?

The number of Electors for a given State equals the number of Senators plus the number of Representatives that State has. Every State regardless of size or population has two Senators.  The number of Representatives is determined by the State’s population.  Obviously the more populous States like New York, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California have a lot more electoral votes than say Rhode Island or Montana.  Therefore in the general election the candidates want to win the electoral votes from the more populous States. Incidently, the District of Columbia where the federal capital of Washington is located is entitled to three electoral votes.  That is the minimum under the Constitution.


There are presently a total of 538 electoral votes.  To win the candidate has to gain a majority of 270 electoral votes


What actually happens on election day in November every four years?

Even though the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates for each party appear on the ballot, voters are in fact casting their ballots for the Electors representing the candidates.  The candidates having a majority of Electors elected on general election day are deemed to have won the election.  The Electors will then vote at a later date to officially confirm the result. More on this later.


What commits them to vote for the candidate?

There is really nothing in the law to bind them to cast their electoral vote for the candidate they represent.  However, because they are from the same party as the candidate to not do so would be tantamount to political suicide.  Some States have instituted “punishments” for those not supporting the candidate. This has only happened infrequently and has not made any difference to the result.


When and where do they vote?

The meet in their respective States forty-one days after the general election day in November.  Because the Electors meet at the State level, the entire body of Electors (Electoral College) never meets together.


What is the actual process?

The Electors cast their ballots.  The votes are counted and a list of the number of votes for president and vice-president is compiled. This list is signed by all the Electors, sealed and sent to the Congress and the attention of the President of the Senate.  Before the entire Congress the sealed boxes from each State are opened, verified and the votes counted. Once this confirmation vote is final the winning candidates officially become the president-elect and the vice president-elect as defined by the Constitution.


It should be noted that if the candidate wins the majority of electoral votes for a State, he automatically wins all the votes for that State (there are some exceptions).


What if there is a tie in the Electoral College votes cast?

If there is a tie in the number of votes cast for president, then the House of Representatives votes by ballot immediately to determine who will become president.  Similarly if there is a tie in the number of votes for vice president, then the Senate votes immediately by ballot to determine who will become vice-president.  There have been ties, but that is another story.


Prior to 1804 when the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified if there was a tie the presidential candidate with the second largest number of votes became vice president.  This made for some strange combinations to say the least.  In effect the president ended up with his opponent as a partner for the term of his presidency.  After the 12th Amendment the president and vice presidential candidates were elected separately.


What is the final step in the presidential process?

The inauguration (taking of the oath) of the president-elect takes place at noon on January 20th following the election.  This is also the same day and time that the sitting president’s term officially ends.  Again this is all mandated by the Constitution, so no variance can occur.  If the sitting president has been re-elected to a second term, he still has to take the oath of office before his second term can begin.



Although a controversial system to some, it seems to have functioned reasonably well for over 200 years.  I make no judgement on the fairness of the system, but I hope that this explanation has helped you understand how presidential elections work.

Some fascinating situations developed from these elections. In future postings I will tell the story of some of them.  For those of you who think the Bush/Gore election controversy of 2000 was something, wait until you read about some other offbeat and confusing results.  More to come.

Other Terms Used in this Article:

Congress (The Legislative Branch):
The House of Representatives and the Senate.

House of Representatives:

Elected body made up of members elected in each State based on population.



Elected body consisting of two senators from each state regardless of size or population.    


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