The electors, collectively called the Electoral College, cast votes to determine the president and vice president of the United States. While voters in the general election vote for president and vice president as a package, the electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president.
Below are answers to six questions about electors, the people who make up the Electoral College.
1. Who is eligible to be an elector?
There are few eligibility restrictions. Article II, section 1, clause 2 of the Constitution states electors cannot be members of Congress or hold federal office. The 14th amendment, ratified in 1868 post-Civil War era, disqualified state officials who engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States:
“No person shall be… elector of President and Vice President… who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.”
2. Who are the people serving as electors?
Electors are often retired politicians, people with personal connections to candidates, state lawmakers, activists, or political party officials. Some electors may be public figures or known names, while others are political party loyalists without wide name recognition. Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Jr., for example, were nominated by their parties as electors in the 2016 election.
3. How many electors are there?
There are 538 electors, and a candidate needs a majority of those votes, 270, to win the election. If no majority is reached, the House of Representatives chooses the president.
Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution dictated that each state would get a number of electors equal to its Congressional representation. Each state gets 2 senators (50 states x 2 = 100); there are 435 voting members of the House of Representatives; and the 23rd amendment granted Washington, DC, three electoral votes. 100 + 435 + 3 = 538 electoral votes total.
Since electoral votes are tied to Congressional representation, the total number of electors changed as the size of the House of Representatives grew over the years. However, the number of representatives has been set at 435 since Public Law 62-5 took effect in 1913, and there have been 538 electoral votes since 1964, the first presidential election after the 23rd amendment was ratified in 1961. Click the link to learn more about the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives over the history of the United States.
4. How are electors chosen?
The state political parties nominate a slate of electors for their presidential candidate. The process is not detailed in the Constitution, so it varies by state. The nominations are typically made at the state party convention or by leaders of the state political parties.
Independent candidates who get on the ballot by filing signed petitions as well as declared write-in candidates also designate a slate of electors.
In the general election, voters are actually casting their votes for a candidate’s slate of electors. In most states, the party of the candidate who wins the popular vote is awarded all of the electors, a system known as “winner-takes-all.” In Maine and Nebraska, the statewide winner gets two electors and the rest are awarded to the popular vote winner in each congressional district.
In early presidential elections, the electors were chosen by state legislatures instead of statewide popular vote. The practice of selecting electors who pledged themselves to a party ticket began to take shape in the 1800 election. The 1824 presidential election was the first in which a majority of states designated electors by popular vote. By 1872, every state held a popular vote.
5. What rules or laws apply to the electors?
No federal law exists requiring electors to vote in accordance with their state’s popular vote results. In 33 states and Washington, DC, the electors are bound by law or oath to vote for their party’s candidate. The laws in those states require electors to vote for the party that nominated them or have them sign a pledge or oath to do so.
Electoral College members who do not cast their votes for the candidate they pledged to support are called faithless electors. There are 15 states with laws to remove faithless electors or penalize them with fines or criminal penalties. In 2016, there were seven faithless electors – the most since 1872. The Supreme Court upheld laws that punish faithless electors in July 2020.
According to the National Archives and Records Administration, no faithless elector has been prosecuted, but some have been replaced or fined. More than 99% of electors have cast their electoral votes as pledged over the history of the country.
6. How and when do electors cast their votes?
Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states:
“The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.”
In 1845, Congress set the presidential general election on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. In 2020, that day fell on November 3.
The November general election determines which electors are chosen for each state. Once the results are finalized, state governors send Certificates of Ascertainment listing their state’s electors to the Archivist of the United States at the Office of the Federal Register.
Electors in each state meet to cast their votes for president and vice president on the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December, at a location determined by the state legislature. The date is set by US Code 3 U.S.C. §7 (1948). In 2020, that meeting happened on December 14.
Since each state chooses its own procedure, some may vote by secret ballot while others declare votes publicly. States determine their own methods of replacing electors who are not able to vote at the December meeting.
The electors sign, certify, and seal their Certificates of Vote before sending them to federal and state officials, at which point the Electoral College is complete. The votes are counted in Congress on January 6, and the vice president of the United States, serving as president of the Senate, announces the results.
- Scott Bomboy, “Does the Constitution allow for a delayed presidential election?,” constitutioncenter.org, Apr. 10, 2020
- Sam Cabral, “Electoral College: The people who ultimately pick the US president,” abc.com, Dec. 12, 2020
- Kyle Cheney, “Who are the electors?,” politico.com, Dec. 18, 2016
- Congressional Research Service, “The Electoral College: A 2020 Presidential Election Timeline,” crsreports.congress.gov, Oct. 22, 2020
- Devin McCarthy, “How the Electoral College Became Winner-Take-All,” fairvote.org, Aug. 21, 2012
- Domenico Montanaro, “Who Are Electors And How Do They Get Picked?,” Dec. 14, 2020
- National Archives and Records Administration, “About the electors,” archives.gov, Aug. 26, 2020
- National Archives and Records Administration, “Electoral College History,” archives.gov, Dec. 17, 2019
- National Archives and Records Administration, “Roles and Responsibilities in the Electoral College Process,” archives.gov, Dec. 23, 2019
- National Archives and Records Administration, “Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote,” archives.gov, Mar. 3, 2017
- National Archives and Records Administration, “What is the Electoral College?,” archives.gov, Dec. 23, 2019
- National Conference of State Legislatures, “The Electoral College,” ncsl.org, Nov. 11, 2020
- Nina Totenberg, “Supreme Court Rules State ‘Faithless Elector’ Laws Constitutional,” npr.org, July 6, 2020
- USA.gov, “Presidential Election Process,” usa.gov, Dec. 15, 2020