Electoral College

Frequently Asked Questions

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Click the links below for answers to these frequently asked questions.

Who verifies if a candidate is qualified to run for President?

The OFR at the NARA administers the Electoral College process, which takes place after the November general election. The OFR does not have the authority to handle issues related to the general election, such as candidate qualifications. People interested in this issue may wish to contact their state election officials or their Congressional Representatives.

Because the process of qualifying for the election and having a candidate’s name put on the ballot varies from state to state, you should contact your state’s top election officer for more information. In most states, the Secretary of State is the official responsible for oversight of state elections, including the presidential election. Visit the National Secretaries of State website to locate contact information and web addresses for the Secretary of State from each state and the District of Columbia.

What happens if the President-elect fails to qualify before inauguration?

If the President-elect fails to qualify before inauguration, Section 3 of the 20th Amendment states that the Vice President-elect will act as President until such a time as a President has qualified.

In the unlikely occurrence that both the President-elect and Vice President-elect fail to qualify by the beginning of the presidential term, Congress established an order of succession in 3 U.S.C. Sec. 19.

What happens if a candidate dies or becomes incapacitated?

There is no Federally-required process to follow if a candidate who is projected to receive electoral votes dies or becomes incapacitated between the general election and the meeting of electors. However,  individual States may have their own requirements that govern how electors must vote at the meeting of the electors. In 1872, when Horace Greeley passed away between Election Day and the meeting of electors, the electors who were slated to vote for Greeley voted for various candidates, including Greeley. The votes cast for Greeley were not counted due to a House resolution passed regarding the matter. See the full Electoral College vote counts for President and Vice President in the 1872 election.

We don’t know what would happen if a candidate who, after dies or becomes incapacitated between the meeting of electors and the counting of electoral votes in Congress. 

The Constitution is silent on whether this candidate meets the definition of “President elect” or “Vice President elect.” If the candidate with a majority of the electoral votes is considered “President elect,” even before the counting of electoral votes in Congress, Section 3 of the 20th Amendment applies. Section 3 of the 20th Amendment states that the Vice President elect will become President if the President elect dies or becomes incapacitated.

If a winning Presidential candidate dies or becomes incapacitated between the counting of electoral votes in the Congress and the inauguration, the Vice President elect will become President, according to Section 3 of the 20th Amendment.

What happens if the States don’t submit their Certificates in time because of a recount?

Title 3 of the United States Code establishes procedures for the Electoral College process and requires that States settle any controversies regarding their electors at least 6 calendar days before the meeting of the electors. It is up to Congress to determine what to do in the event one or more States cannot meet the statutory deadlines. However, the Constitution does not require that States appoint electors based on the popular vote, so a State may be able to resolve the controversy under State law, appoint electors, and issue a Certificate even if a recount is pending.  

Even if a State is unable to resolve a controversy by the statutory deadline, nothing prevents the State from appointing electors. 

Resolving controversies before the statutory deadline eliminates the potential for one type of challenge during the counting of the votes in Congress.  However, missing the deadline doesn’t guarantee a challenge. See 3 U.S.C. section 15.

How is it possible for the electoral vote to produce a different result than the national popular vote?

It is important to remember that the President is not chosen by a national popular vote. The Electoral College vote totals determine the winner, not the statistical plurality or majority a candidate may have in the national popular vote totals. Electoral votes are awarded on the basis of the popular vote in each state.

Note that 48 out of the 50 States award Electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis (as does the District of Columbia). For example, all 55 of California’s electoral votes go to the winner of the state election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.

In a multi-candidate race where candidates have strong regional appeal, as in 1824, it is quite possible that a candidate who collects the most votes on a nation-wide basis will not win the electoral vote. In a two-candidate race, that is less likely to occur. But, it did occur in the Hayes/Tilden election of 1876 and the Harrison/Cleveland election of 1888 due to the statistical disparity between vote totals in individual state elections and the national vote totals. This also occurred in the 2000 presidential election, where George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes, and the 2016 election, where Donald J. Trump received fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton, but received a majority of electoral votes.

In 2016, even though millions more individuals voted for the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate in CA, PA, and TX (if you add the votes from the 3 States), the Democratic party was only awarded the electors appointed in CA. Because the Republican candidate won the State popular vote in PA and TX, the Republican party was awarded 3 more total electors than the Democratic party.

CA - 8,753,788 Democratic votes cast vs 4,483,810 Republican votes cast = 55 Democratic electors

PA - 2,926,441 Democratic votes cast vs 2,970,733 Republican votes cast = 20 Republican electors

TX - 3,877,868 Democratic votes cast vs 4,685,047 Republican votes cast = 38 Republican electors

Total - 15,658,117 Democratic votes cast vs 12,139,590 Republican votes cast for the national popular vote, but 55 Democratic electors vs 58 Republican electors appointed based on each State's popular vote.

Can my State vote for the winner of the national popular vote instead of my State’s winner?

Nothing in the Constitution prevents your State from using something other than your State’s popular vote results to appoint electors. 

Each State legislature determines how the electors are allocated to candidates. As of the last election, the District of Columbia and 48 States had a winner-takes-all rule for the Electoral College. In these States, whichever candidate received a majority of the popular vote, or a plurality of the popular vote (less than 50 percent but more than any other candidate), took all of the State’s electoral votes. Only two States, Nebraska and Maine, did not follow the winner-takes-all rule. In those States, there could have been a split of electoral votes among candidates through the state’s system for proportional allocation of votes (and, in fact, there was a split in Maine's allocation of votes in 2016 and Nebraska’s in 2008).

Any State legislature could enact legislation that would change how the Governor (or Mayor of DC) appoints its electors. So, a State legislature could require that its electors vote for a candidate who did not receive a majority of the popular vote in its State. There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their States, so the States may decide to use something other than their State's popular vote results to direct how their electors vote.

What happens if no presidential candidate gets 270 electoral votes?

If no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the Presidential election leaves the Electoral College process and moves to Congress.  

The House of Representatives elects the President from the 3 Presidential candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each State delegation has one vote and it is up to the individual States to determine how to vote. (Since the District of Columbia is not a State, it has no State delegation in the House and cannot vote).  A candidate must receive at least 26 votes (a majority of the States) to be elected.

The Senate elects the Vice President from the 2 Vice Presidential candidates with the most electoral votes. Each Senator casts one vote for Vice President. (Since the District of Columbia is has no Senators and is not represented in the vote).  A candidate must receive at least 51 votes (a majority of Senators) to be elected.

If the House of Representatives fails to elect a President by Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect serves as acting President until the deadlock is resolved in the House.

What would happen if two candidates tied in a state’s popular vote, or if there was a dispute as to the winner?

A tie is a statistically remote possibility, even in smaller States, and would not be known until late November or early December, after a recount and after the Secretary of State for the State had certified the election results. But if a state’s popular vote were to end in a tie between candidates, State law would determine what procedure would be followed in breaking the tie (See 3 U.S.C. section 5).

Following the November 2017 election, one candidate for a Virginia House of Delegates seat was ahead by two (2) votes. Since the results were so close, there was a recount which found that one (1) vote had been miscounted.  After the recount, the candidates had the same number of votes. Following State law, they drew lots for a winner. The candidates put their names on individual pieces of paper and put the pieces in a bowl. A neutral third party pulled a name out of the bowl and that candidate was declared the winner. 

A very close finish could also result in a run-off election or legal action to decide the winner. Just like a tie, State law determines how the winner is decided, and would be conclusive in determining the selection of electors. The law provides that if States have laws to determine controversies or contests as to the selection of electors, those determinations must be completed at least six days before the meeting of the electors.

What impact does a candidate’s concession speech have on the Electoral College process?

None. A candidate’s concession speech does not impact the states’ duties and responsibilities related to the Electoral College system.

Can electoral votes be contested when Congress counts the votes in January?

Under federal law an objection to a state’s electoral votes may be made to the President of the Senate during the Congress’s counting of electoral votes in January. The objection must be made in writing and signed by at least one Senator and one member of the House of Representatives. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives debate the objection separately. Debate is limited to two hours. After the debate, both the Senate and the House of Representatives rejoin and both must agree to reject the votes.

In January 2005, Ohio’s 20 Electoral votes were challenged. After debate, the Senate and the House failed to agree to reject the votes. Ohio’s 20 Electoral votes for President Bush and Vice President Cheney were counted.

I am serving overseas in the U.S. military. How do I cast my vote in this year’s Presidential election?

U.S. citizens who are members of the Uniformed Services and their family members may cast their vote through the Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program.

Uniformed Services include the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, and the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For more information, visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program web site.

Can citizens of U.S. Territories vote for President?

No, the Electoral College system does not provide for residents of U.S. Territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands) to vote for President. Unless citizens in U.S. Territories have official residency (domicile) in a U.S. State or the District of Columbia (and vote by absentee ballot or travel to their State to vote), they cannot vote in the presidential election. Note that prior to the adoption of the 23rd Amendment, DC residents could not vote in the Presidential election.

The political parties may authorize voters in primary elections in Territories to select delegates to represent them at the political party conventions. However, selecting delegates and voting at a national convention is unrelated to the Electoral College process.

How can I learn more about the Electoral College?

Read the Federalist Papers for the founders' views on the Electoral College:

Search the writings of Thomas Jefferson for his views on the Presidency (especially, Letter to George Hay, August 17, 1823).

Visit our Election and Voting Resources

Often cited reference sources:

  • Congressional Quarterly Press, “Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” Congressional Quarterly Press (2010)
  • J. Clark Archer, Stephen J. Lavin, Kenneth C. Martis, and Fred M. Shelley, “Historical Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, 1788-2004,” Congressional Quarterly Press (2006)
  • Walter Berns (ed.), “After the People Vote: Steps in Choosing the President,” American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (1983)
  • Michael J. Glennon, “When No Majority Rules: The Electoral College and Presidential Succession,” Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1992
  • Pierce and Longley, “The People's President” (1981)
  • William Peters, “A More Perfect Union” (1937)
  • Max Ferrand, “The Framing of the Constitution” (1913, reprinted 1987)