U.S. Presidential Elections


For those of you, who always wanted to know just how our presidents are elected, but just couldn’t get yourself to drudge through those boring textbook explanations, this is the place for you.

How we elect presidents

Actually we do not elect our presidents, we elect people to elect our presidents. When we cast our ballots “on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November, in every fourth year”(US Code Title 3, Chapter 1, Sec. 1.), we are actually electing a bunch of “electors”. These are people nominated by the various political parties to meet at their state capitol “on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December”(US Code Title 3, Chapter 1, Sec. 7.) to cast the “official” votes for President and Vice President. These “electors” make up the “electoral college”

Wait a second you say. How do I know for sure that these “electors” are going to vote for the candidate they were nominated to vote for?

You don’t!

In fact several of these people have cast their votes for someone completely different than they were supposed to. Just to mention some recent examples, in 1956 an elector decided to vote for a judge from his state Walter B. Jones instead of Dwight D. Eisenhauer, which he had pledged to do. In 1972 another Republican elector ignored her pledge and cast her vote for the libertarian candidate instead of Nixon. In 1976 one of the electors was way ahead of his time and cast his vote for Ronald Reagen who didn’t win the nomination until 1980.

Sound a bit screwed up? Well there are a lot of people who think that way. In fact there is an ongoing controversy about, weather we should keep this system or get rid of the electors and elect the president directly like it is done in most other countries that have a presidential system.

Electors and Their Selection

Nevertheless, our system of electors has worked for more than 200 years. Oh there have been controversial elections in U.S. history. Only one of these (the election of 1800) was because of the electors. None of these rebellious electors since have ever affected the outcome of the election.

Anyway the current practice is that each state is allocated a number of electors. This is determined by the number of Representatives and Senators represent the state in congress. The parties nominate their electors, who then pledge to vote for the party’s candidates (president and vice president). We then with our vote determine which party’s electors get to vote. We have a winner take all system in all but 2 states. This means that the candidate who receives the most votes in a state gets all of the state’s electors.

Let’s take the state of California for example. California has 55 electors (No other state has more electors than California). Lets say that 45% of the voters cast their ballots for the democratic candidate, 44% for the republican candidate, 9% for the libertarian and 2% for other candidates. This means that those electors nominated by the democrats in California get to cast their ballots in December for their candidate. Plain and simple the democratic candidate can count (more or less) on all 55 electors from California to vote for her/him. The republicans don’t get to send even one elector to vote for their candidate.

This winner take all rule can actually cause a candidate to lose the election even though they got more votes than their opponents. YES! The candidate who got the most votes loses! Forget majority rules! No! Since the winner of each state (with two exceptions) gets all of the states elector, all you have to do is win the right combination of states to win. This is what happened in 2000. Al Gore got 50,996,582 votes. Bush only got 50,456,062. That’s more that 500 000 people who picked Gore over Bush, but Bush still became president. That’s about how many people live in the state of Wyoming. This has happened 3 other times in our history (1824, 1872 and 1888). Well that’s just the way it is.

Electors and Their Role

Anyway, Once the electors are selected they then meet on the “on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December” and cast their ballots for the candidate they pledged to vote for, or like I mentioned above for anyone they please (if they feel a little reckless). The candidate with the absolute majority of the elector’s votes (50% or more) becomes the next president of the United States. Currently there are 538 electors. Thus 270 electors are needed to win.

When Electors do not Select the President

If no candidate receives 270 votes or more the new House of Representatives (those elected with the president in November) determine which candidate becomes president.

It’s not like you think though. The representatives do not cast individual votes like they do when voting on bills. For this election each states representatives count as one(1) vote. So all the representatives of a state have to agree on a candidate. Well what if they can’t agree? What if too many states have to abstain because they cannot agree on a candidate. Well they keep voting until a president is determined. The president has only been determined this way twice (1800 and 1824).


To sum things up, the President is elected by electoral college. These electors are determined by the voters of the individual states. In most cases the candidate who gets the most votes in a state gets the votes of all of that state’s electors. If you ask me a messy system that has somehow seemed to work for more than 200 years. Nevertheless, I am sure that there are much better systems to elect presidents out there.

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