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How is a U.S. Presidential Election Decided?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Presidential election in the United States is an indirect election, which means that the citizens of the country do not actually decide who becomes the President. Instead, they vote for representatives of political parties known as electors who cost votes on their behalf. The entire process is rather byzantine, and it can be confusing for people who are not familiar with the complexities of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College system used in the United States for the Presidential election was established as a compromise when the framers of the Constitution first gathered to establish the new nation. Many people did not want to leave the selection of the President up to the popular vote, and preferred to see the President elected by Congress. Others felt that this would be undemocratic, and argued for a popular vote. The result was a compromise: citizens vote for party electors, who in turn vote for specific candidates.

Each state is given as many electors for the Presidential election as it has Senators and Representatives in Congress. The current number of electors totals 538: 535 for the various states, and three for Washington, DC. The states decide how electors are designated, with each party having its own electors. Electors may be apportioned by district, or in other ways, and they are appointed in advance of the election so that when the popular vote is counted, each party has a slate of electors ready to represent it. To be an elector, someone must generally be an active and involved member of the political party which he or she represents.

When people go to the polls for the Presidential election, their ballots may list candidates by name and party, but they are really voting for electors. When someone votes for the Republican candidate for President, for example, he or she is casting a vote for the Republican elector. When the polls close, the votes are tallied. Most states have a winner take all system, in which the winner of the popular vote in the state takes all of the electors. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, give two electors to the winner of the popular vote, and divide the rest by district, which means that party electors can potentially split a state. This happened in 2008, when the Democratic candidate for President won a single electoral vote in Nebraska, while the Republican candidate took the state's other four electoral votes.

On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in the month of December, the electors representing the victorious political party assemble to cast their votes in their own state Capitals. In most cases, electors are pledged to vote for their party candidates, although they can choose to vote for other candidates. Someone who casts a vote for an opposing party is known as a faithless elector, and in some regions, faithless electors face legal penalties. The electors fill out two ballots: one with the name of the President, and the other with the name of the Vice-President. These ballots are counted and certified, and then sent to Congress, where they are opened by the sitting Vice-President in January and counted to declare the winner of the election.

In order to win, a Presidential candidate must capture at least 270 electoral votes. If a candidate fails to get the majority of the vote, Congress elects the President, under the terms of the 12 Amendment. The process of determining the outcome of the Presidential election in America has been criticized as overly complex, and potentially problematic, as it is possible to lose the popular vote and still get enough electoral votes to win.

One interesting note about electors: under the Habitation Clause, when they cast their ballots for President and Vice-President, only one of the candidates can come from an elector's home state. If both candidates come from New York, for example, New York's electors are only legally allowed to vote for one. This is one of the reasons why Presidential candidates choose running mates from other states.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon33889 — On Jun 13, 2009

Which was the first u.s. presidential election to allow the citizens to vote?

Did this happen in the 1796 election between Adams

and Jefferson?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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