Political Participation: How do we select and elect a president?

Photo of Donald Trump taking the oath of office at the 2017 inaguration.

Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Melania Trump and his family looks on during the 58th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky at Voice of America; VOA at https://www.voanews.com/a/in-photos-donald-trump-inauguration-day-/3684713.html)

Learning Objectives

  • Describe changes over time in the way the president and vice president are selected.
  • Identify the stages in the modern presidential selection process.
  • Assess the advantages and disadvantages of the Electoral College.
A map of the United States showing the number of Electoral College votes granted to each state. In alphabetical order, Alabama has 9, Alaska has 3, Arizona has 11, Arkansas has 6, California has 55, Colorado has 9, Connecticut has 7, Delaware has 3, Washington DC has 3, Florida has 29, Georgia has 16, Hawaii has 4, Idaho has 4, Illinois has 20, Indiana has 11, Iowa has 6, Kansas has 6, Kentucky has 8, Louisiana has 8, Maine has 4, Maryland has 10, Massachusetts has 11, Michigan has 16, Minnesota has 10, Mississippi has 6, Missouri has 10, Montana has 3, Nebraska has 5, Nevada has 6, New Hampshire has 4, New Jersey has 14, New Mexico has 5, New York has 29, North Carolina has 15, North Dakota has 3, Ohio has 18, Oklahoma has 7, Oregon has 7, Pennsylvania has 20, Rhode Island has 4, South Carolina has 9, South Dakota has 3, Tennessee has 11, Texas has 38, Utah has 6, Vermont has 3, Virginia has 13, Washington has 12, West Virginia has 5, Wisconsin has 10, and Wyoming has 3.

This map shows the distribution by state of 538 electoral votes available in the 2016 national election. The number of electoral votes granted to each state equals the total number of representatives and senators that state has in the U.S. Congress or, in the case of Washington, DC, as many electors as it would have if it were a state. Under the U.S. Constitution, a majority of electoral votes (currently 270) is required to elect the president. (Credit: Image used in OpenStax)

The Electoral Voting and “The Electoral College”

Once the voters have cast ballots in November and all the election season would seem to come to a close, races for senators and representatives may be over, but the constitutional process of officially electing a president has technically only begun. Despite media coverage that proclaims who the next president will be, it is not really official.

Under the U.S. Constitution, presidential electors must travel to their respective state capitols and cast the official votes for president in mid-December. In nearly all cases, presidential electors, generally political party loyalists, cast their ballots for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. Although not mentioned in the Constitution, we have come to call these 538 electors, the Electoral College–though they never gather together in one place to vote. The Electoral College is actually a state-by-state process, not a place. Once voting has occurred in each state, the states then forward the official voting results to the U.S. Senate. Only after the electoral votes have been read by the president of the Senate (i.e., the vice president of the United States) during a special joint session of Congress in January, the presidential candidate who received the majority of electoral votes officially named president.

Photo of counting electoral vote 1921, National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, no known restrictions on publication, at https://www.loc.gov/item/npc2007003393/

Counting the electoral vote in 1921. (Credit: National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, no known restrictions on publication, at https://www.loc.gov/item/npc2007003393/)

The number of electors granted to each state equals the total number of representatives and senators that state has in the U.S. Congress or, in the case of Washington, DC, as many electors as it would have if it were a state. The number of representatives may fluctuate based on state population, which is determined every ten years by the U.S. Census, mandated by Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution. There are 538 electors. A majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President. Read more about the allocation of electoral votes. The map at the front of this section shows the distribution of electoral votes by state.

Electors cannot be elected officials nor can they work for the federal government. Since the Republican and Democratic parties choose faithful party members who have worked hard for their candidates, the modern system decreases the chance they will vote differently from the state’s voters.

But how do we know how these electors will vote well before the official vote? We know since the electors (with rare exception, when they are called faithless electors) will follow the wishes of the electorate in each state. What is important to know is which party’s candidate won a particular state to estimate fairly accurately the results of electoral voting.

Under our current two-party political system, in forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, the candidate who wins the most votes in November receives all the state’s electoral votes, and only the electors from that party will vote. This is often called the winner-take-all system. In two states, Nebraska and Maine, the electoral votes are divided. The candidate who wins the state gets two electoral votes, but the winner of each congressional district also receives an electoral vote. In 2008, for example, Republican John McCain won two congressional districts and the majority of the voters across the state of Nebraska, earning him four electoral votes from Nebraska. Obama won in one congressional district and earned one electoral vote from Nebraska.[1]

In 2016, Donald Trump lost the state of Maine, but won the majority in one congressional district earning him one electoral vote.  This voting method is referred to as the district system, since electoral votes are calculated by the presidential candidate receiving the majority of the vote with a particular congressional district.

Sign at a Women and Allies protest in New York on December 12. Photo: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sign at a Women and Allies protest in New York on December 12. (Credit: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images and New Yorker Magazine)

Faithless electors who do not follow the dictates of the electorate in their particular state are extremely rare. In fact, in the 2016 election despite a determined effort including thousands of emails and phone calls to sway 37 electors in states won by Trump to vote for another candidate, the effort completely fizzled. In fact, there were more faithless electors away from Hillary Clinton (5) than for Donald Trump (2).[2]

Electoral College Map from 2016 election showing Clinton with 232 and Trump with 306.

Donald Trump won a majority of the electoral votes and was elected president. With the results of the general election, it appeared he had won with 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232 votes. However, after the official tally by electors, Trump received only 304 to Clinton’s 227, due to the defection of 7 faithless electors. (Credit: Business Insider and Andy Kiersz/Skye Gould at http://www.businessinsider.com/final-electoral-college-map-trump-clinton-2016-11)

Electing A President

The process of electing a president every four years has evolved over time. This evolution has occurred as a result of political parties’ power as gatekeepers to the presidency.

Political parties impact both the beginning and end of the process to elect a president. The political parties select, through a nomination process, who will run for president and in the end the winning political party in each state picks the electors who cast the official ballots for president.

The framers of the Constitution made no provision in the document for the establishment of political parties. Following the first election of Washington, the political party system gained steam and power in the electoral process, creating separate nomination and general election stages.

The U.S. Constitution made established a federal system of government in which the role of state government is preserved and protected. The existence of the federal system significantly impacts both the nomination and general election phases of the election of the president.

Selecting the Candidate: The Party Process

Over the last several decades, the manner by which parties have chosen candidates has trended towards a drawn-out series of state contests, called primaries and caucuses, which begin in the winter prior to the November general election.

Well into the middle of the 20th century, state leaders, and workers met in national conventions to choose their nominees, sometimes after long struggles that took place over multiple ballots. In this way, the political parties kept a tight control on the selection of a candidate. In the early twentieth century, however, some states began to hold primaries, elections in which candidates vied for the support of state delegations to the party’s nominating convention. Over the course of the century, the individual state primaries gradually became a far more important part of the process, though the national party leadership still controls the timetable nomination through the convention rules impacting delegate distribution by state and the calendar of primaries. In recent decades, a majority of the delegates are chosen through primary elections, and the party conventions themselves are little more than a widely publicized rubber-stamping event.

The General Election

A photo of the Republican national convention in 1964. People hold signs and balloons in support of George Romney.

Traditional party conventions, like the Republican national convention in 1964 pictured here, could be contentious meetings at which the delegates made real decisions about who would run. These days, party conventions are little more than long promotional events. (Credit: Library of Congress)

The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, provided for our current process of using electoral voting for the election of president and vice president as well as setting out a backup system to choose a winner if no one received a majority of the electoral votes. Only once since the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, during the election of 1824, has the House of Representatives selected the president under these rules of the backup system.

In several elections, such as in 1876 and 1888, and more recently in 2000 and 2016, a candidate who nationwide received less popular votes has won the presidency, including cases when the losing candidate secured a nationwide majority of the popular vote. In the 2000 election, Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote, while Republican nominee George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote and hence the presidency.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the nationwide popular vote 48% to 45.9% with 2.9 million votes more than Donald Trump. However, Donald Trump became president by winning more votes than Hillary Clinton in enough states to capture a majority of the electoral votes. In fact, 77,774 combined votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin gave Trump 46 critical electoral votes by winning narrow victories in each of these states. In fact, most of Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin can be accounted for by the large margins she won in a few states including California and New York.[3]

This flow chart is called How to Become President of the United States

The process of becoming president has become an increasingly longer one, but the underlying steps remain largely the same. (Credit: modification of work by the U. S. General Services Administration, Federal Citizen Information Center, Ifrah Syed)

Of course, both sides in the 2016 election understood the rule of the game–that winning 270 electoral votes was much more important than winning  the national popular vote. Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns accordingly planned strategies that lead them to win the popular vote in enough states with enough electoral votes to reach the magic number of 270. Campaign dollars for advertising and campaign visits were focused on achieving sufficient elector votes; thus, the federal nature of the United States has presidential campaigns adopting strategies that recognize the reality that there are 50 campaigns rather than a single national campaign for president. Moreover, some states are overwhelmingly dominated by one party or another–presidential campaigns focus most of their attention on so-called swing states that could go to either candidate.

Electoral College Reform: Changing the way we count the votes for president

Not everyone is satisfied with how the Electoral College fundamentally shapes the election, especially in cases such as those noted above, when a candidate with a minority of the popular vote claims victory over a candidate who drew more popular support nationwide. Yet movements for electoral reform, including proposals for a straightforward nationwide direct election by popular vote, have gained little traction.[4]

Following the 2000 presidential election, when then-governor George W. Bush won by a single electoral vote and with over half a million fewer individual votes than his challenger, astonished voters called for Electoral College reform–that is the manner under which we determine who is elected president.. Years later, even after 2016 election, however, nothing of any significance had been done. The absence of reform in the wake of such elections is a testament to the staying power of the Electoral College or our current system of electing the president.

Supporters of the current system defend it as a manifestation of federalism, arguing that it also guards against the chaos inherent in a multiparty environment by encouraging the current two-party system. They point out that under a system of direct election, candidates would focus their efforts on more populous regions and ignore others.[5]

Critics charge that the current system negates the one-person, one-vote basis of U.S. elections, subverts majority rule, and might lead to chaos should enough electors desert a candidate, thus thwarting the popular will. Despite all this, the system remains in place. It appears that many people are more comfortable with the problems of a flawed system than with the uncertainty of change.[6]

Those who insist that the Electoral College should be reformed argue that its potential benefits pale in comparison to the way the Electoral College depresses voter turnout and fails to represent the national popular will. In addition to favoring small states, since individual votes there count more than in larger states due to the mathematics involved in the distribution of electors, the Electoral College results in a significant number of “safe” states that receive no real electioneering, such that nearly 75 percent of the country is ignored in the general election.

One potential solution to the problems with the Electoral College is to scrap it all together and replace it with a direct nationwide popular vote. The popular vote would be the aggregated totals of the votes in the fifty states and District of Columbia, as certified by the head election official of each state.

A second solution often mentioned is to have a proportional system of division of the electoral vote in each state. That is, as each state assigns it electoral votes, it would do so based on the popular vote percentage in their state, rather with the winner-take-all approach almost all the states use today. Sometimes this suggestion is coupled with a “federalism bonus” which gives the winner of the state two votes, but divides the rest of the electoral vote proportionally.

Another solution mentioned is to have voting method referred to as the district system, in which electoral votes are calculated by the presidential candidate receiving the majority of the vote within a congressional district. That is, the candidate who received the most votes in the geographic area of a congressional district would win one electoral vote. Under this system, 435 electoral votes would be divided up by districts. Usually this suggestion is also coupled with the “federalism bonus” to allocate the additional 100 electoral votes.

Another alternative for Electoral College reform has been proposed by an organization called National Popular Vote. The National Popular Vote movement is an interstate compact between multiple states that sign onto the compact. Once a combination of states constituting 270 Electoral College votes supports the movement, each state entering the compact pledges all of its Electoral College votes to the national popular vote winner. This reform does not technically change the Electoral College structure, but it results in a mandated process that makes the Electoral College reflect the popular vote. Thus far, eleven states with a total of 165 electoral votes among them have signed onto the compact.Chart revisiting the advantages and disadvantages of the various plans for electing the president of the United States.

Questions to Consider

  1. What problem exists with the Electoral College?

  2. In what ways does the current Electoral College system protect the representative power of small states and less densely populated regions?

  3. Why might it be important to preserve these protections?

Terms to Remember

Electoral College–a process; established by the founders as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens

frontloading–states allowed to hold primaries ahead of the majority of states


  1. "Presidential Popular Vote Summary for All Candidates Listed on at Least One State Ballot," http://www.fec.gov/pubrec/fe2008/tables2008.pdf (November 7, 2015).
  2. http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/elecroarl-college-vote-seals-trump-white-house-victory-n698026
  3. Larry Sabato, "The 2016 Election that Broke All, or at Least most of the Rules" in Trumped. Edited by Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffery Skelly at Rowman and Littlefield, New York, 2017.
  4. National Archives and Records Administration--What is the Electoral College?https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/about.html
  5. John Samples, "In Defense of the Electoral College," 10 November 2000, http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/defense-electoral-college (May 1, 2016).
  6. Clifton B. Parker, "Now We Know Why It’s Time to Dump the Electoral College," The Fiscal Times, 12 April 2016, http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2016/04/12/Now-We-Know-Why-It-s-Time-Dump-Electoral-College.