What is an Electoral College, how does it work?

Last week we compared some of the aspects of the United States of America and Malawi presidential elections. As promised this week we look at the Electoral College, how it is formed, how it works and why it matters.

What is the Electoral College? First to note is that it is a process, not a place. The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors who cast votes to decide the President and Vice-President of the United States. When voters go to the polls they choose which candidate receives their state's electors. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral college votes (270) wins the Presidency. The number 538 is the sum of the nation's 435 Representatives, 100 Senators, and 3 electors given to the District of Columbia. This system was established in 1804.

How does the Electoral College work?

Every four years, voters go to the polls and elect a candidate for President and Vice-President. In all but two states, the candidate who wins the majority of votes in a state wins that state's electoral votes. In Nebraska and Maine, electoral votes are assigned by proportional representation, meaning that the top vote-getter in those states wins two electoral votes (for the two Senators) while the remaining electoral votes are allocated congressional district by congressional district. These rules make it possible for both candidates to receive electoral votes from Nebraska and Maine, unlike the winner-take-all system in the other 48 states.

How are the electors selected? This process varies from state to state. Usually, political parties nominate electors at their state conventions. Sometimes that process occurs by a vote of the party's central committee. The electors are usually state-elected officials, party leaders, or people with a strong affiliation with the Presidential candidates.

Do electors have to vote for their party's candidate? Neither the Constitution nor Federal election laws of the US compel electors to vote for their party's candidate. That said, twenty-seven states have laws on the books that require electors to vote for their party's candidate if that candidate gets a majority of the state's popular vote. In 24 states, no such laws apply, but common practice is for electors to vote for their party's nominee.


What happens if no one gets a majority of Electoral College votes? If no one gets a majority of electoral votes, the election is thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives. The top three contenders face off with each state casting one vote. Whoever wins a majority of states wins the election. The process is the same for the Vice-Presidency, except that the U.S. Senate makes that selection.

Can you lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College vote? Yes, a candidate could lose the popular vote and win the Electoral College vote. As mentioned last week, this happened to George W. Bush in 2000, who lost the popular vote in 2000. Bush got 50,456,062 while Albert Gore amassed 50,996,582 of the popular votes. Albert Gore lost the presidency because of the Electoral College vote. However, Bush won the Electoral College vote by 271 to 266.

When does the Electoral College cast its votes? Each state's electors meet on the Monday following the second Wednesday of December in the year of elections. They cast their votes then, and those votes are sent to the President of the Senate who reads them before both houses of Congress on January 6th.

Why does the Electoral College matter?  The Electoral College determines the President and Vice-President of the United States. The Electoral College system also distinguishes the United States from Malawi’s First-Past-The-Post system whereby the highest vote-getter automatically wins.

An analogy of this system in Malawi could be district based set up whereby the votes are collated at council level and the number of voters being determined by the Parliamentary seats in the council or being allocated proportionally basing on population in the council against national population. Then electors elected at council level would go to Parliament to elect the president.