In the United States, the president and vice president are elected by the Electoral College rather than the popular vote of the people-and, as of April 2018, there are a total of 538 electoral votes. This system of indirect democracy was chosen by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between allowing Congress to elect a president and giving potentially uninformed citizens a direct vote.
The history of how that number of electoral votes came to be and the number needed to elect a president is an interesting story.
Electoral Votes Background
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist (Paper) No. 68: "Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption." The Federalist Papers, authored by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, represented an attempt to convince the states to ratify the Constitution.
The framers of the Constitution, and many in leadership positions in the 1780s, feared the influence of the unwashed mob. They feared that, if allowed to directly elect the president, the general populace might foolishly vote for an unqualified president or even a despot-or the masses might be unduly influenced by foreign governments when voting for a president. In essence, the Founding Fathers felt the masses could not be trusted.
Hence, they created the Electoral College, where citizens of each state would vote for a slate of electors, who theoretically were pledged to then vote for a specific candidate. But, if circumstances warranted, the electors could be free to vote for a candidate other than the one to whom they were pledged.
The Electoral College Today
Today, each citizen's vote indicates which electors he would like to have represent him during the Electoral College process. Each presidential ticket has a group of designated electors ready to respond should their party win the popular vote of the people during a presidential election, which occurs every four years in November.
The number of electoral votes is derived by adding the number of senators (100), the number of members in the House of Representatives (435), and three additional votes for the District of Columbia. (The District of Columbia was awarded three electoral votes with the passage of the 23rd Amendment in 1961.) The total number of electors, then, adds up to 538 total votes.
To win the presidency, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the electoral votes. Half of 538 is 269. Therefore, a candidate needs 270 Electoral College votes to win.
More About the Electoral College
The total number of electoral votes does not vary from year to year because the number of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate does not change. Instead, every 10 years with the new census, the number of electors shifts from states that have lost population to states that have gained population.
Though the number of electoral votes is fixed at 538, there are circumstances that can arise requiring special attention.
- There is a constitutional process that goes into effect in case of a tie in the Electoral College.
- Most states use a winner-takes-all method, where the candidate who wins the state's popular vote is awarded the state's entire slate of electors. As of April 2018, Maine and Nebraska are the only states that do not use a winner-takes-all system.
- Because of the way electors are apportioned, the presidential candidate with the most votes by the citizenry does not always win the election and become president. This was the case with Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots in the 2016 presidential election, but Donald Trump became president because he received 290 out of 538 electoral votes, 20 more than the 270 electoral votes he needed to win.