The County Election by George Caleb Bingham
The County Election by George Caleb Bingham

We've come a long way from the practice of deliberative democracy of the early American republic to the intricate connections of secret and open balloting of the twenty-first century.  

The U.S. presidential election of 2016 opened a new chapter in national politics with a nod toward selecting the first president in modern times with no prior experience in elective office.  Although he did not win the popular vote against Hillary Clinton on November 8, Donald Trump won the electoral vote on December 19, which determined that he would become president.  

So, how is it that American democratic elections do not necessarily determine who will be the next president?  Let's take a look at how the U.S. Constitution shapes the democratic process for selecting the president of the United States.  

The Constitutional Process or the "Electoral College" 

As educated citizens and students, you know that in fact the "presidential election" actually is not a national popular election at all.  Indeed, it's a complex selection process of state elections and decisions on different dates as set forth in the U.S. Constitution, Art. II, sec. 1; Amendment XII; Amendment XX; and Amendment XXIII

We call this selection process the "Electoral College."  (But, notice that this phrase "Electoral College" is not even mentioned in the Constitution!  In fact, political parties aren't mentioned either!)  

November 8, 2016

Selecting the electors

In fall 2016, on November 8, the constitutional process began with separate elections (known collectively as the "general election") in each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia.  By popular vote, each state and D.C. selected delegates or "electors" to represent the state or D.C for the next round of elections to be held in December.


The Constitution mandates that each state is only entitled to the number of electors that equals the number of that state's congressional delegation (i.e., the number of U.S. House of Representatives—but not the representatives themselves—plus the number of U.S. Senators—but not the senators themselves); D.C. is entitled to be treated as though it were a state (but only for purposes of casting electoral votes).  

Here is the formula for determining the total number of electors and electoral votes: 435 (number of voting members in the U.S. House of Representatives) + 100 (number of members in the U.S. Senate) + 3 (Washington, D.C., by amendment) = 538.


electoral map  

(By constitutional prerogative, 48 of the 50 states assign the selection of electors to each of the political parties, such that whichever candidate receives the majority of the popular vote in November, that candidate will receive 100% of the electoral votes cast in December.  This winner-take-all arrangement in 48 states allows for the possibility that the national winner of the electoral vote may not receive the majority of the popular vote.  Two other states—Maine and Nebraska—also assign the selection of electors to each of the political parties but divide the candidates' overall electoral votes by wins in congressional districts and the state as a whole.) 

December 19, 2016

Voting for president and vice president

On December 19, the electors (who were chosen by the voters in November) met in their respective state capitals (City of Washington for D.C.) and voted by ballot for candidates on each of two separate lists, one list for president and the other list for vice president.  The ballots cast representing each elector's votes were then sent to the U.S. Congress to be counted.  

ballot box    ballot box

January 6, 2017

Counting the ballots

In early 2017, on January 6, the voting members of both chambers of Congress jointly tallied the ballots cast to determine the outcome of the electoral voting that had occurred in December.  To be elected as president or vice president, the winning candidate must have received a simple majority (i.e., 50% + one more vote) of the electoral votes possible.  Inasmuch as the total number of votes possible is 538, the minimum necessary to be elected is 270 votes (i.e., 269 votes [50%] + one more vote).  

capitol building

Congress certified that Donald Trump surpassed the minimum of 270 votes necessary to be president by garnering 304 electoral votes to 227 votes for Hillary Clinton and 7 votes for other candidates.  

(However, had no candidate received at least 270 votes, members of the House of Representatives would have voted by state by simple majority—which means that there would have been a total of 50 votes cast—to select the next president.  Members of the Senate would have voted individually by simple majority—which means that there would have been a total of 100 votes cast—to select the next vice president.) 

January 20, 2017

Swearing in the new president

Finally, on January 20, now that a presidential candidate and a vice presidential candidate had been certified by Congress to have received at least 270 ballots submitted by state and D.C. electors in their favor, president-elect Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States and vice-president-elect Michael R. Pence was sworn in as the 48th vice president of the United States.  

white house dc

And there you have it!  That's how we"elect" the president of the United States!

Additional Information on the Electoral College 

To learn more about the philosophical basis, practice, and history of the Electoral College, the following websites will be useful:

Enjoy and Learn!