The Electoral College process is outlined in the country’s founding document, the United States Constitution. Although it does not actually contain the phrase "electoral college" the Constitution establishes the process for presidential elections, giving designated electors from each state and the District of Columbia the power to vote for president and vice president. The Constitution also details the process for determining how many electors each state is granted, and who cannot serve as an elector.
Distributing Power Among the States
According to Article II of the Constitution, the number of electors each state is granted is “equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress,” meaning the total number of senators and House members from that state. For example Oregon, with its two senators and five House districts, has seven electors. The 23rd Amendment of the Constitution grants the District of Columbia, which is unrepresented in Congress, three electors, bringing the current total of electors to 538. A majority of electors — 270 or more — is required to win the presidency.
Choosing the Electors
The Constitution has very few restrictions on who can serve as an elector. Senators and House members are barred, as is anyone “holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States.” There is no standard process for choosing electors. Each state determines who is eligible and how they are selected. The electors are typically nominated by state political parties, either at the state’s convention or at a party committee meeting. Serving as an elector is an honor often granted as recognition for outstanding service to the party.
The Influence of Individual Votes
On Election Day in a presidential election year, which falls on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, individual citizens head to the polls to vote for a "ticket" which includes one candidate for president and one candidate for vice president. When an individual citizen casts his or her vote, the vote is cast for the electors who gather in their state capital in December to cast their ballots for president and vice president. States have a great deal of control over this process: some require their electors to vote with the statewide popular majority, some don't. However, “faithless electors” -- those who vote for a different candidate than the one they are committed to support -- are rare, representing less than 1 percent of Electoral College votes throughout history.
How Electoral Votes Are Distributed
In all but two states all of the state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote. The two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where a district system is in place and “one electoral vote is awarded to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in each congressional district, and the remaining two electoral votes are awarded to the candidates receiving the most votes statewide.” Once the state's electors have cast their votes, they are sent to Congress. Congress meets in joint session as someone, usually the sitting vice president, announces the votes of states in alphabetical order in January. Two appointed tellers count the votes, and the candidate who receives a majority of Electoral College votes -- 270 or more -- is declared the next president of the United States.
The Electoral College and the Popular Vote
The presidential election process is not really a nationwide election but a series of statewide elections. And in every state except Maine and Nebraska, a candidate's margin of victory is inconsequential -- a candidate can win a state by a small number of votes and still be awarded all of that state's electoral votes. Because of this, it is possible for one candidate to win the nationwide popular vote and a different candidate to win the Electoral College and the presidency. This has occurred three times in U.S. history: in the 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, in the 1876 race between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes, and in the 1888 race between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.