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Electing the U.S. President

American voters don’t exactly elect their next president; they select the electors who represent them in the official Electoral College vote.

When Americans take to the polls on election day every four years to select their next president, they do not really vote directly for their chosen candidate. They actually vote to select their states’ electors, who will then decide the presidency through the Electoral College process. 

This process was established in the U.S. Constitution, signed in 1787 by the founders of the United States, laying out how the government will be structured and how it will run. The Electoral College process was meant to be a compromise between electing the U.S. president solely through a popular vote or having the U.S. Congress, the legislative branch of the government that consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, select the president outright. 

The Electoral College process has three key steps: the selection of the electors, the meeting of the electors to choose the president and the vice president, and the counting of the electoral votes. 

Selection of electors

The Electoral College has 538 electors. Each state, plus the District of Columbia, has an allotment of votes equal to the number of senators and representatives it has in the U.S. Congress. Each state gets two votes for its senators in the U.S. Senate plus a number of votes equal to the number of its members in the House of Representatives. For example, California has 53 members in the House of Representatives and two senators, so it has 55 electors. Washington, D.C., is allotted three electors, despite having no voting representation in the U.S. Congress.

To begin the selection process, the political parties in each state first nominate a group of potential electors. This process varies from state to state. Sometimes it takes place at state party conventions or is done instead by a central committee vote. Potential electors may be state elected officials, party leaders, people who have personal connections to the party’s presidential candidate, or those the party wants to recognize for their service. Through this nomination process, presidential candidates obtain their own slate of electors.

Next, on Election Day, voters from the general public select their states’ electors, simply by voting for their chosen presidential candidates. The electors slated for the winning candidates become the states’ appointed electors. All states, except Maine and Nebraska, have a winner-take-all policy where the state looks only at the overall winner of the statewide popular vote. Maine and Nebraska, however, appoint individual electors based on the winner of the popular vote for each Congressional district and then two electors based on the winner of the overall statewide popular vote. Following the general election, each state’s governor creates a Certificate of Ascertainment, which lists the names of the electors chosen by the voters and the number of votes received, as well as the names of all other candidates and the number of votes received. 

Meeting to choose

The presidential election takes place every fourth year on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. It is truly decided, however, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, when the electors meet in their states to cast their votes. They vote for the president and the vice president on separate ballots, even though the candidates run on joint tickets. Electors record their votes on a Certificate of Vote, which the state sends to the U.S. Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration to become part of the official records of the election. 

The U.S. Constitution and federal law do not require electors to vote in accordance with the results of their states’ popular votes. However, some state laws do demand it. In other cases, political parties require binding pledges to vote for their nominees. “Faithless electors”—those who do not vote according to their state law or party pledge—may have to pay fines or can be disqualified and replaced with other electors. Since the founding of the United States, more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged. As a result, the country can most often trust that the predicted victor, named unofficially on election night, will indeed take office.

Counting electoral votes

On January 6, following the December in which the electors meet to vote, the U.S. Congress gathers in a joint session of both the House and the Senate, in the House chamber. The acting vice president, who serves as the president of the Senate, presides over the meeting. There, the congresspeople officially count the electoral votes. Two appointed “tellers” announce the votes, in alphabetical order by state. To win, candidates must receive a majority of 270 electoral votes. Following the count, if two candidates prevail, the president of the Senate announces the newly elected U.S. president and vice president, who take office at their inauguration on January 20.


Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.