The Electoral College is an indirect vote created by the Founding Fathers of the United States as a constitutional mandate. It is a compromise between those who wished for Congress to elect the president and those who sought a direct popular vote. Designed in accordance with the principle of federalism, the Electoral College allows the states to select the electors who officially elect the president.
When Americans go to the polls, the names of the presidential candidates appear on the ballots. But the people of the United States actually vote for their state's electors, who then vote for the president. The number of a state's electors equals the number of its members of the US Congress. Each state has 2 US Senators and a proportion of the 435 members of the US House of Representatives, based on the census of its population conducted every 10 years. Currently, there are 538 electors (535 being the total of the US Congress, plus 3 for the District of Columbia, the national capital).
270 electoral votes are needed to elect the president and vice president. In all but two states, all of the electoral votes are pledged to the nominee with a plurality of a state's popular vote, even if the winner gets only 50.1% of the vote. Nebraska and Maine award elector votes in a proportional system.
Members of the US Congress are not allowed to be electors. Processes to select electors vary from state to state. In general, a state's party convention or state party's central committee selects electors. Electors tend to be state-elected officials, party leaders, or persons who have an affiliation with a presidential candidate.
Electors meet in their state capitol on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (December 17 in 2012) to select the president and vice president of the United States. The US Constitution mandates that a joint session of Congress certify the electoral vote on 6 January following an election.
If a candidate does not win a majority of the electoral vote for president, the House of Representatives decides. The Senate decides in cases where there is no majority of elector votes for the vice-president. The House has selected the president twice, in 1800 and 1824. The Senate has selected the vice president once, in 1836.
The winner of the popular vote is usually the same person who wins the Electoral College vote. Four times in US history - 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 - the winner of the popular vote nationwide failed to win the majority of electoral votes.
Much debate and confusion surrounds the US Electoral College. Critics see it as an anachronistic system that obstructs the will of the people. They argue that the winner-takes all method forces candidates to focus too much attention on battleground states, ignoring other largely populated areas. Supporters of the Electoral College contend that if there was a simple popular vote, the interests of voters in small states and rural areas would be largely ignored, as candidates would campaign primarily in large cities. For a more detailed critique of the Electoral College see John B. Anderson’s “The Electoral College Flunks the Test in the Age of Democracy.”
Tara Ross provides a defense of the current system in her article: “The Electoral College: Enlightened Democracy.”
Despite numerous attempts to reform or abolish it, this distinctly American system is likely to remain the way the United States chooses its president.
For more information, visit the US Government's Electoral College guide.