Quick Guide to Understanding How the &#%!@ the Electoral College Works

Understanding the Electoral College

Just how does the Electoral College function?

In practice, the electoral college system fairly quickly turned out quite differently from what the Founders intended, with two major modifications coming into play:

  1. Beginning in the early 19th century many states decided to choose their electors by elections, so that today, virtually all the states select their electors through a popular election, with a “winner take all” structure where all of the electoral college votes for that state go to the winner of the state election1, and
  2. Even though technically electors have the right to give their vote to whom they independently favor, in practice they virtually always give their vote to the candidate who has won the election in their state.

As a result, in every presidential election since 1824, this system of separate “winner take all” elections in each of the states (today’s 50) have always produced a single, majority winner with at least 270 Electoral College votes.

1. with the exception of two states, Maine and Nebraska, that allocate their electoral votes by congressional district, rather than as a single state, but this has never had a notable impact on the presidential election

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