What are Electoral Votes? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 Background
  • 1:09 Who Are the Electors?
  • 1:38 How the Electoral…
  • 3:07 Theory Behind the College
  • 3:39 Criticism
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the meaning of electoral votes. We'll take a closer look at the term's definition and how it is applied here in the United States of America.


The Committee of Eleven, a group comprised of individuals from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, was formed to work out the details of the electoral process. This committee derived a plan that eventually resulted in the creation of the Electoral College. The proposal was approved by the Convention on September 6, 1787. It was signed into federal law in 1845.

The United States Electoral College is the body of individuals that actually elects the vice-president and president of the United States. Although many people believe that the president and vice president are actually chosen by popular vote; they are not. A group of people known as the electors votes, and it is their votes that decide the next president and vice president in an election. Each state and the District of Columbia have electors that represent the state.

The number of electors in each state varies and is equal to the number of members of Congress that each state has. In other words, Ohio has 18 members of Congress and, therefore, had 18 electoral votes in the 2012 presidential election. There are 538 electors altogether.

Who Are the Electors?

How someone is chosen as an elector varies from state to state. In some states, the political parties nominate the electors. In other states, the electors are chosen by popular vote on election day. When the time comes to vote for the president or vice president, the electors meet the Monday after the second Wednesday in December in their state capital and complete their vote at that meeting. Then, the votes are sent to Congress to be approved on January 6, at a 1:00 pm session.

How the Electoral College Works

Originally, the 1796 and 1800 ballots did not distinguish between vice president and president. On the ballot, the voter would simply write the names. This created difficulties in determining who the electors wanted for each position, and the vote once ended in a tie between the president and vice president. This difficulty resulted in the The Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1803. This required the electors to submit a separate ballot for the president and vice president.

The Twelfth Amendment details how the president and vice president are elected, including how the Electoral College process works.

Electors are chosen depending on which candidate wins the state popular vote. For example, in the 2012 election, the two candidates were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Barack Obama won the popular vote in the state of Ohio. Ohio has 18 electoral votes. Because Obama won, all 18 electors, or members of the Electoral College, were to vote for Obama.

The presidential candidate and vice presidential candidate who receive the majority of electoral votes for that office win that office. If, for whatever reason, the Electoral College is unable to elect the president and vice president, then the House of Representatives will select the president. In this case, each state in the House gets one vote. If the House is unable to secure the positions, then the Senate will select the president and vice president. In this scenario, each senator has one vote.

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