The United States elects its president and vice president indirectly, using an "Electoral College." The Electoral College has nothing to do with education, and its members (called electors) never actually meet together. Members of the Electoral College are appointed by states.

Voters cast their ballots on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. (In 2016, election day is November 8.) This is the "popular vote."

Although voters choose their preferred candidate—in 2016, the top contenders are Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, and Donald Trump, a Republican—the popular vote does not officially determine the president.

The popular vote determines the votes of the Electoral College, which officially elects the president in mid-December. (In 2016, the president will be elected December 19.)

There are currently 538 members of the Electoral College. Each state gets as many electors as its number of representatives in Congress. So, each state has at least three electors, because each state has two Senators and at least one member of the House of Representatives. Representation in the House is determined by the U.S. Census, conducted every 10 years. (The last Census was conducted in 2010, setting the number of House members and Electoral College electors through 2020.) The District of Columbia is allowed no more electors than the least-populous state. (In 2016, Washington, D.C., had three electors.)

The math adds up: There are 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 Senators, and three representatives from the District of Columbia. So, there are 538 electors.

Except for Maine and Nebraska, the Electoral College is a "winner take all" system. All electors vote for the winner of their state's popular vote, no matter how narrow their margin of victory.

Candidates must receive more than half of the total votes to win an election. Half of 538 is 269, so a candidate must receive 270 electoral votes to win.

  1. One of the most popular election analysis sites is called FiveThirtyEight. Why?

  2. Using the map provided by the U.S. Census (above), how many electors does your state have? How many members in the House of Representatives?

  3. Based on their number of electors, what are the least-populated states in the U.S.?

  4. Most presidential candidates spend more time and money campaigning in California than any of its surrounding states. Why?

  5. There are 538 members of the Electoral College. This number is based partly on population figures provided by the U.S. Census. If the population of the U.S. changes, in what presidential election (what year) will that change be reflected? In other words, in what year would FiveThirtyEight have to re-name itself?

  6. Do you think the Electoral College will get bigger or smaller after the next Census? What areas of the country do you think may have their number of electors shrink or swell?


person who seeks elected office.


legislative branch of the government, responsible for making laws. The U.S. Congress has two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Electoral College

electors representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia, responsible for officially electing the President and Vice-President of the United States.

popular vote

vote totals for a candidate or issue, made by all qualified voters.


count of everyone in the U.S., conducted every 10 years.