The Final Vote

The 538 members of the Electoral College cast the votes that count

Aug 27, 2012 | By Andrea Delbanco

In most elections, the candidate with the most votes wins. But when it comes to picking a U.S. President, things aren’t quite that simple. Weeks after Election Day, a group of 538 people called the Electoral College will actually elect the President.

Here’s how the Electoral College works. Each state is assigned a number of electoral votes, based on the size of its population. The 538 electoral voters are chosen by the political parties in each state. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to become President. If no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, members of the House of Representatives choose the President.

In 48 states, the winner of the popular vote (the votes cast by citizens) gets all of the state’s electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, the electoral votes can be split between the candidates.

A Time-Tested System

The U.S. Constitution established the Electoral College. Some of the Founding Fathers wanted Congress to pick the President. Others wanted citizens to make the choice. The Electoral College was a compromise. Things first got complicated in 1876. Samuel Tilden won the popular vote. But his opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes, won the election by a single electoral vote. The 2000 election was tricky too. George W. Bush won fewer popular votes than Al Gore. But in the end, Bush had more electoral votes and went to the White House.

Many people think it would be more fair for the popular vote alone to decide elections. Others agree with our Founding Fathers that the Electoral College is a necessary part of the process. The voters will have their say, but it’s the Electoral College that makes it official.