U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
 www.archives.gov April 20, 2014 

Frequently Asked Questions

Click the links below for answers to these frequently asked questions or e-mail the Office of the Federal Register a question.


Still have questions? E-mail the Office of the Federal Register a Question


Why do we have the Electoral College?

The founding fathers established the Electoral College in the Constitution 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. However, the term “electoral college” does not appear in the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution and the 12th Amendment refer to “electors,” but not to the “electoral college.”

Since the Electoral College process is part of the original design of the U.S. Constitution it would be necessary to pass a Constitutional amendment to change this system.

Note that the 12th Amendment, the expansion of voting rights, and the use of the popular vote in the States as the vehicle for selecting electors has substantially changed the process.

Many different proposals to alter the Presidential election process have been offered over the years, such as direct nation-wide election by the People, but none have been passed by Congress and sent to the States for ratification as a Constitutional amendment. Under the most common method for amending the Constitution, an amendment must be proposed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the States.

What proposals have been made to change the Electoral College system?

Reference sources indicate that over the past 200 years, over 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject. The American Bar Association has criticized the Electoral College as “archaic” and “ambiguous” and its polling showed 69 percent of lawyers favored abolishing it in 1987. But surveys of political scientists have supported continuation of the Electoral College. Public opinion polls have shown Americans favored abolishing it by majorities of 58 percent in 1967; 81 percent in 1968; and 75 percent in 1981.

Opinions on the viability of the Electoral College system may be affected by attitudes toward third parties. Third parties have not fared well in the Electoral College system. Candidates with regional appeal such as Governor Thurmond in 1948 and Governor Wallace in 1968, won blocs of electoral votes in the South. Neither come close to seriously challenging the major party winner, but they may have affected the overall outcome of the election.

The last third party, or splinter party, candidate to make a strong showing was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (Progressive, also known as the Bull Moose Party). He finished a distant second in Electoral and popular votes (taking 88 of the 266 electoral votes needed to win at the time). Although Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote nationwide in 1992, he did not win any Electoral votes since he was not particularly strong in any one state. Any candidate who wins a majority or plurality of the popular vote nationwide has a good chance of winning in the Electoral College, but there are no guarantees (see the results of 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 elections).


How does the Electoral College process work in my State?

For information on the Electoral College process in your State, contact the Secretary of State of your state. To find your Secretary of State, go to the web site for the National Association of Secretaries of State: http://www.nass.org.

May I attend the meeting of my State’s Electors to watch them vote?

Generally, each state’s Electors vote at their respective state capitols. Each state determines whether or not the voting is open to the public. To find out if your state’s meeting of Electors is open to the public and if so, what the process is to view the vote, contact your Governor’s Office or your Secretary of State.

Is there an online source listing the names and voting records of presidential electors for all previous presidential elections back to 1789?

We are not aware of a centralized, comprehensive source. This web site has the information for several recent past elections:

This web site lists links to state web sites relating to the presidential election. Maryland has posted the names and voting records of its electors on the web.


Who verifies if a candidate is qualified to run for President?

The Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives and Records Administration administers the Electoral College process, which takes place after the November general election. The Office of the Federal Register does not have the authority to handle issues related to the general election, such as candidate qualifications. People interested in this issue may wish to contact their state election officials or their Congressional Representatives.

Because the process of qualifying for the election and having a candidate’s name put on the ballot varies from state to state, you should contact your state’s top election officer for more information. In most states, the Secretary of State is the official responsible for oversight of state elections, including the presidential election. Visit the National Secretaries of State web site to locate contact information and web addresses for the Secretary of State from each state and the District of Columbia.

What happens if the President-elect fails to qualify before inauguration?

If the President-elect fails to qualify before inauguration, Section 3 of the 20th Amendment states that the Vice President-elect will act as President until such a time as a President has qualified.

The Constitution also directs Congress to determine by law a successive line of service to be called upon in the unlikely occurrence that both the President-elect and Vice President-elect fail to qualify by the beginning of the presidential term. Accordingly, federal law (3 U.S.C. Sec. 19) states that, in order, the following would be required, if qualified and, for Cabinet secretaries, if having been confirmed by advice and consent of the Senate, to act as President until such a time as a President has qualified:

  • the Speaker of the House of Representatives
  • the President pro tempore of the Senate
  • the Secretary of State
  • the Secretary of the Treasury
  • the Secretary of Defense
  • the Attorney General
  • the Secretary of the Interior
  • the Secretary of Agriculture
  • the Secretary of Commerce
  • the Secretary of Labor
  • the Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • the Secretary of Transportation
  • the Secretary of Energy
  • the Secretary of Education, and
  • the Secretary of Veterans Affairs

What happens if a candidate dies or becomes incapacitated?

If a candidate dies or becomes incapacitated between the general election and the meeting of electors, under federal law, the electors pledged to the deceased candidate may vote for the candidate of their choice at the meeting of electors. Individual states may pass laws on the subject, but no federal law proscribes how electors must vote when a candidate dies or becomes incapacitated. In 1872, when Horace Greeley passed away between election day and the meeting of electors, the electors who were slated to vote for Greeley voted for various candidates, including Greeley. The votes cast for Greeley were not counted due to a House resolution passed regarding the matter. See the full Electoral College vote counts for President and Vice President in the 1872 election.

As to a candidate who dies or becomes incapacitated between the meeting of electors and the counting of electoral votes in Congress, the Constitution is silent on whether this candidate meets the definition of “President elect” or “Vice President elect.” If the candidate with a majority of the electoral votes is considered “President elect,” even before the counting of electoral votes in Congress, Section 3 of the 20th Amendment applies. Section 3 of the 20th Amendment states that the Vice President elect will become President if the President elect dies or becomes incapacitated.

If a winning Presidential candidate dies or becomes incapacitated between the counting of electoral votes in Congress and the inauguration, the Vice President elect will become President, according to Section 3 of the 20th Amendment.


How is it possible for the electoral vote to produce a different result than the nation-wide popular vote?

It is important to remember that the President is not chosen by a nation-wide popular vote. The Electoral College vote totals determine the winner, not the statistical plurality or majority a candidate may have in the nation-wide popular vote totals. Electoral votes are awarded on the basis of the popular vote in each state.

Note that 48 out of the 50 States award Electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis (as does the District of Columbia). For example, all 55 of California’s Electoral votes go to the winner of the state election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.

In a multi-candidate race where candidates have strong regional appeal, as in 1824, it is quite possible that a candidate who collects the most votes on a nation-wide basis will not win the electoral vote. In a two-candidate race, that is less likely to occur. But, it did occur in the Hayes/Tilden election of 1876 and the Harrison/Cleveland election of 1888 due to the statistical disparity between vote totals in individual state elections and the national vote totals. This also occurred in the 2000 presidential election, where George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.

What is the difference between the winner-takes-all rule and proportional voting, and which states follow which rule?

The District of Columbia and 48 states have a winner-takes-all rule for the Electoral College. In these States, whichever candidate receives a majority of the popular vote, or a plurality of the popular vote (less than 50 percent but more than any other candidate), takes all of the state’s Electoral votes.

Only two states, Nebraska and Maine, do not follow the winner-takes-all rule. In those states, there could be a split of Electoral votes among candidates through the state’s system for proportional allocation of votes. For example, Maine has four Electoral votes and two Congressional districts. It awards one Electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the state-wide, “at-large” vote. It is possible for Candidate A to win the first district and receive one Electoral vote, Candidate B to win the second district and receive one Electoral vote, and Candidate C, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large Electoral votes. Although this is a possible scenario, it has not actually happened.

What happens if no presidential candidate gets 270 Electoral votes?

If no candidate receives a majority of Electoral votes, the House of Representatives elects the President from the 3 Presidential candidates who received the most Electoral votes. Each state delegation has one vote. The Senate would elect the Vice President from the 2 Vice Presidential candidates with the most Electoral votes. Each Senator would cast one vote for Vice President. If the House of Representatives fails to elect a President by Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect serves as acting President until the deadlock is resolved in the House.

What would happen if two candidates tied in a state’s popular vote, or if there was a dispute as to the winner?

A tie is a statistically remote possibility even in smaller states. But if a state’s popular vote were to come out as a tie between candidates, state law would govern as to what procedure would be followed in breaking the tie. A tie would not be known of until late November or early December, after a recount and after the Secretary of State had certified the election results. Federal law would allow a state to hold a run-off election.

A very close finish could also result in a run-off election or legal action to decide the winner. Under Federal law (3 U.S.C. section 5), state law governs on this issue, and would be conclusive in determining the selection of Electors. The law provides that if states have laws to determine controversies or contests as to the selection of Electors, those determinations must be completed six days prior to the day the Electors meet.

What impact does a candidate’s concession speech have on the Electoral College process?

None. A candidate’s concession speech does not impact the states’ duties and responsibilities related to the Electoral College system.

How many times has the Vice President been chosen by the U.S. Senate?

Once. In the Presidential election of 1836, the election for Vice President was decided in the Senate. Martin Van Buren’s running mate, Richard M. Johnson, fell one vote short of a majority in the Electoral College. Vice Presidential candidates Francis Granger and Johnson had a “run-off” in the Senate under the 12th Amendment, where Johnson was elected 33 votes to 17.


Can electoral votes be contested when Congress counts the votes in January?

Under federal law an objection to a state’s Electoral votes may be made to the President of the Senate during Congress’s counting of Electoral votes in January. The objection must be made in writing and signed by at least one Senator and one member of the House of Representatives. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives debate the objection separately. Debate is limited to two hours. After the debate, both the Senate and the House of Representatives rejoin and both must agree to reject the votes.

In January 2005, Ohio’s 20 Electoral votes were challenged. After debate, the Senate and the House failed to agree to reject the votes. Ohio’s 20 Electoral votes for President Bush and Vice President Cheney were counted.


I am serving overseas in the U.S. military. How do I cast my vote in this year’s Presidential election?

U.S. citizens who are members of the Uniformed Services and their family members may cast their vote through the Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Uniformed Services include the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, and the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For more information, visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program web site.

Can citizens of U.S. Territories vote for President?

No, the Electoral College system does not provide for residents of U.S. Territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands) to vote for President. Unless citizens in U.S. Territories have official residency (domicile) in a U.S. State or the District of Columbia (and vote by absentee ballot or travel to their State to vote), they cannot vote in the presidential election. Note that prior to the adoption of the 23rd Amendment, DC residents could not vote in the Presidential election.

The political parties may authorize voters in primary elections in Territories to select delegates to represent them at the political party conventions. But that process does not affect the Electoral College system.

I believe there might be voter registration fraud happening in my area. Where should I report my concerns?

The Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives and Records Administration administers the Electoral College process, which takes place after the November general election. The Office of the Federal Register does not have the authority to handle issues related to the general election, such as voter fraud.

Under certain circumstances, the FBI investigates election fraud that stems from campaign finance crimes, voter/ballot fraud, or civil rights violations. Concerns regarding voter fraud should be directed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Voter fraud complaints may be directed to any of the local U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the local FBI offices or the Public Integrity Section (202-514-1412).


Still have questions? E-mail the Office of the Federal Register a Question


References

Read the Federalist Papers at: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpapers.html for the founders' views on the Electoral College:

  • Alexander Hamilton's design for the Electoral College in Federalist No. 68
  • James Madison's views on the republican form of government in Federalist No. 10

Search the writings of Thomas Jefferson for his views on the Presidency (especially, Letter to George Hay, August 17, 1823) at: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/

Visit our Election and Voting Resources

Often cited reference sources:

  • Walter Berns (ed.), “After the People Vote: Steps in Choosing the President,” American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (1983)
  • Michael J. Glennon, “When No Majority Rules: The Electoral College and Presidential Succession,” Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1992
  • Pierce and Longley, “The People's President” (1981)
  • William Peters, “A More Perfect Union” (1937)
  • Max Ferrand, “The Framing of the Constitution” (1913, reprinted 1987)


Still have questions? E-mail the Office of the Federal Register a Question


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