Everything you need to know about the Electoral College

In other U.S. elections, candidates are elected directly by popular vote. But the president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens.

The unique system of electing American presidents is again capturing the nation’s attention, with President Donald Trump facing a strong reelection challenge from Democrat Joe Biden on Tuesday.

In other U.S. elections, candidates are elected directly by popular vote. But the president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” through a process called the Electoral College.

History of the college

The Electoral College was devised at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was a compromise between those who wanted direct popular elections for president and those who preferred to have Congress decide. At a time of little national identity and competition among the states, there were concerns that people would favor their regional candidates and that big states with denser populations would dominate the vote.

How many members?

The Electoral College has 538 members, with the number allocated to each state based on how many representatives it has in the House, plus its two senators. The District of Columbia gets three, despite the fact the home to Congress has no vote in the nation’s legislative system.

How does it work?

To be elected president, the winner must get at least half plus one — or 270 electoral votes.

After you cast your ballot for president, your vote goes to a statewide tally. In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner gets all the electoral votes for that state. Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system.

Nov. 3, 2020 — When you vote for a presidential candidate, you aren’t actually voting for president. You’re telling your state which candidate you want your state to vote for at the meeting of the electors. The states use these general election results, or the popular vote, to appoint their electors. The winning candidate’s state political party selects the individuals who will be the electors.

While the Constitution doesn’t require electors to follow their state’s popular vote, many states' laws do. Though it’s rare, electors have challenged those laws and voted for someone else. But in July 2020 the Supreme Court ruled those state laws are constitutional. Electors must follow their state’s popular vote, if the state has passed such a law.

Mid-November through Dec. 14, 2020 — After the presidential election, each state’s governor prepares seven certificates of ascertainment.

By Dec. 8, 2020, states resolve controversies — States must make final decisions in any controversies over the appointment of their electors at least six days before the meeting of the electors. This is so their electoral votes will be presumed valid when presented to Congress.

Dec. 14, 2020, electors vote in their states — The electors meet in their states and vote for president and vice president on separate ballots. The electors record their votes on six certificates of vote, which are paired with the six remaining certificates of ascertainment. The electors sign, seal and certify six sets of electoral votes.

Dec. 23, 2020, electoral votes arrive — Electoral votes (the certificates of vote) must be received by the president of the Senate no later than nine days after the meeting of the electors.

On or before Jan. 3, 2021 — The sets of certificates are sent to Congress, as requested.

Jan. 6, 2021 Congress meets in joint session to count the electoral votes. The vice president, as president of the Senate, presides over the count and announces the results. The president of the Senate then declares who has been elected president and vice president.

If any objections to the electoral votes are made, they must be submitted in writing and be signed by at least one member of the House and one senator. If objections are presented, the House and Senate withdraw to their respective chambers to consider the objections.

If no presidential candidate wins at least 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives decides the election under the 12th Amendment. This has happened only once: in 1824, when the House elected John Quincy Adams as president.

If no vice presidential candidate wins at least 270 votes, the Senate elects the vice president, also under the 12th Amendment.

Noon, Jan. 20, 2021 — Inauguration Day

In Other News