How the Electoral College works

The Electoral College elects the President and Vice President.

Key swing states Ohio, Florida and Iowa helped incumbent Barack Obama hold onto the presidency in 2012. (Courtesy: National Archives/Public Domain)

(WWLP) – With Election Day on Tuesday, many people may be unclear on how the system for picking the president works. American voters do not directly elect the president, but rather the presidency is decided in the Electoral College; a system in which candidates receive votes based on their support in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

How does the Electoral College work?

When you vote for president, you are really deciding which electors, men and women are pledged to a particular candidate, will be voting. Political parties or presidential campaigns typically choose their electors, to ensure their candidate will get the votes for each state they win. The electors each meet in their respective states on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (in this case, December 19), and cast their votes. The presidential candidate who receives the majority of electoral votes- at least 270- is elected into office.

How many electors are there?

There are currently 538 electors- one for each of the 435 Representatives and 100 Senators. There are three additional electors from the District of Columbia, which does not have any voting members of Congress.

How many electoral votes does Massachusetts have?

Massachusetts has 11 electoral votes. As with all states, our number of votes is equal to number how many members of Congress we have- in both the House and the Senate.

How do states allocate their electoral votes?

48 states and the District of Columbia have their electors on a “winner-take-all” basis. The only exceptions are Nebraska and Maine. Under a winner-take-all system, whichever candidate wins that state wins all of that state’s electors.

What about Nebraska and Maine?

Nebraska and Maine take part in a “congressional district method.” Nebraska gets five electoral votes, two for its senators and three for the representatives in each congressional district. Maine has four electoral votes, two for the senators and two for the representatives in each congressional district. In both of those states, two electoral votes (representing the senators) are allocated to the winning candidate statewide, while the remaining electoral votes go to the candidate who wins each district. In 2008, for instance, Republican John McCain won four out of Nebraska’s five electoral votes, with Democrat Barack Obama receiving one vote. McCain won the state as a whole, and won in the 1st and 3rd congressional districts, but Obama won in the 2nd district.

Does the winner of the popular vote always win in the Electoral College?

The winner of the nationwide popular vote typically wins the electoral vote, but that is not always the case. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush won the national election, winning a majority of electoral votes, but he actually received fewer votes nationwide than Democrat Al Gore. While that is the only contemporary example, this also happened in 1888 and 1876. All three elections were very close.

Do the electors have to vote for the candidate to which they are pledged?

In some states, so-called “faithless electors” – those who vote for a candidate other than the one to whom they are pledged- are punished, and such a vote can even be voided under the laws of some states. The most recent example of a faithless elector took place in 2004, when a Minnesota elector voted for vice presidential nominee John Edwards instead of party presidential candidate John Kerry, though this is assumed to have been an accident. A more famous example was in 1820 when an elector pledged to President James Monroe instead cast his ballot for John Quincy Adams, presumably so that George Washington could remain the only president to have been elected unanimously in the Electoral College.

What if nobody reaches 270 electoral votes?

If no candidate receives the majority of electoral votes, the election is decided in the House of Representatives. This has only happened once in U.S. history- in 1824, when John Quincy Adams was elected over Andrew Jackson. Adams had lost both the popular and the electoral vote, but Jackson did not receive an electoral majority, and the House chose Adams.

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