December 13, 2020


The Electoral College is a body of electors established by Article II of the United States Constitution and refined by the 12th Amendment. Although ‘electors’ are mentioned in both the Article and the Amendment, the term ‘electoral college’ is not used in either. However, because the process is in the original Constitution, it can only be removed or changed by amendment.

The electors form up every four years following the November election for the sole purpose of officially electing the president and vice president of the United States. 

A presidential ‘ticket’ is the pair of candidates for president and vice president, nominated by their party and elected together.

Beyond general guidelines/laws at the federal level, each state

  • decides who is eligible to vote in its elections
  • manages all elections within the state
  • designs its ballot, including federal and statewide races and district/local races.
    • President/Vice President, US senate and state executive/judicial will appear on all ballots
    • The US House candidates appear only on ballots in their Congressional district, state legislators in their state district, and local officials vary.

Voters in each state mark their ballot for the presidential ticket, but are, in fact, voting for a party’s slate of electors who will then cast their official votes for the presidential ticket.

The number of electoral votes per state = their delegation to the US Congress (plus a special designation of three for DC, which has no Congresspersons or Senators)

*Based on the 2010 census, each Congressional district has, on average, 711,000 individuals.


Each political party that presents a presidential ticket on a state ballot also selects its slate of electors.

Each state’s laws determine the number of signatures (or other criteria) for a candidate/ticket to appear on its ballot. Ergo:

  1. the two major parties (Democrat and Republican) will be sure their candidates appear on all 50 states’ and District of Columbia’s ballots
  2. smaller parties and independent candidates may not meet the criteria everywhere and may appear on some but not all states’ ballots. These candidates are unlikely to be elected by the Electoral College, though it is possible..

If a party or candidate’s name appears on a state’s ballot, that party or candidate would also appoint its slate of electors.


48 states give all their electors to the presidential ticket that wins the popular vote in that state (“winner take all”).

2 states, Maine and Nebraska, each award 2 electoral votes to the statewide winner and one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district (“proportional”).


Once the vote in each state is counted, audited (recounted if necessary), it is certified by the state’s governor and seven Certificates of Ascertainment, each listing the candidates for president and vice president, their pledged electors, and the total votes each candidate received. One certificate is sent, as soon after Election Day as practicable, to the National Archivist in Washington. The Certificates of Ascertainment are mandated to carry the state seal and the signature of the governor (or mayor of DC).

Each state's electors meet in their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December (Dec. 14 in 2020). They cast separate votes for president and vice president. Normally, electors vote for the candidates they are pledged to, though a few states allow electors to use their own judgment, in this fairly rare instance, referred to as “faithless electors.”

After each state’s EC votes are tallied, six Certificates of Vote are signed by all of that state’s electors. A Certificate of Ascertainment is attached to each Certificate of Vote, and these are sent:


A candidate must receive an absolute majority of electoral votes (currently 270) to win the presidency or the vice presidency. If no candidate receives a majority in the election for president or vice president, the election is determined via a contingency procedure established by the Twelfth Amendment.

In this situation, the House chooses one of the top three presidential electoral vote winners as the president, while the Senate chooses one of the top two vice presidential electoral vote winners as vice president.


The President-elect appoints his or her transition team, with experts assigned in each area of the executive branch. These teams review the written documents of the outgoing administration and discuss them with their counterparts. This is normally a cooperative process that begins as soon as the election is ‘confirmed’ by the states. This usually begins within a day or so after the election, modern technology having made vote counting quite fast. This year, the start of the transition team’s work was delayed nearly 3 weeks at the behest of the sitting President.

Likewise, legislative action in the ‘lame duck’ period (the time between the election and inauguration) may be ‘only the essentials’ or it can be (and sometimes has been) a bum’s rush to pass things that will impede the work of the incoming administration.


The elected president and vice president are inaugurated on January 20, 2021.