Electoral College

April 2, 2021


In the wake of this week’s historic Supreme Court decision, here’s a look at the uniquely American institution that shapes how the U.S. elects a president.

How It Works:

  • When you vote this November, you won’t *really* vote for president and VP. You’ll vote for a slate of electors.
  • Electoral College members pledge to vote for the candidates that win the popular vote in your state.
  • The Electoral College has 538 electors. It takes 270 to win the presidency. If there’s a tie, the House of Representatives decides winner.

Origins & Evolution

  • Deciding how America would vote for pres. & vice pres. was tough for the U.S. founders who considered many options – some wanted Congress to decide, some wanted a popular vote. The compromise: the Electoral College at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
  • The only constitutional requirement – electors can’t serve in federal gov’t.
  • Did You Know? Until 1804, electors only voted for pres. and runner-up got VP.

Electoral College Today

  • Every state receives the # of electors equal to its # of representatives (based on population) & senators (two). D.C., which has 0 votes in Congress, has 3.
  • State laws govern who can serve and state political parties nominate electors.
  • In most states, electors make a pledge that they’ll vote for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in their state.

This Week’s Case

  • Most states, but not all, legally require electors to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote.
  • Some of those states impose penalties, or disqualify those who don’t vote as pledged – a.k.a “faithless electors.”
  • The Supreme Court heard challenges to two state laws penalizing “faithless electors” from Colorado & Washington who voted OPPOSITE the popular vote of their state during the 2016 election.
“The Constitution’s text and the Nation’s history both support allowing a State to enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party’s nominee—and the state voters’ choice—for President.”

Justice Elena Kagan, writing the court’s unanimous opinion, which held that states may require electors to vote for the candidate they pledged to support and penalize those “faithless electors” who don’t. The decision notes that “faithless electors” have never impacted the outcome of an election.

Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Electoral College was not perfect, but “excellent.” Many disagreed then & many still do. A Supreme Court ruling allowing electors to go “rogue” could have strengthened the argument for those who want to abolish the Electoral College for the popular vote (which would require a constitutional amendment).



by Jenna Lee,