One of the most complicated and widely misunderstood facets of the Electoral College is how electoral votes are distributed in presidential elections in the United States. While the the U.S. Constitution establishes the Electoral College, what requirements did the Founding Fathers have for how electoral votes are distributed by the states?
Here are some common questions and answers about how states allocate electoral votes in presidential contests.
How are electoral votes distributed?
States determine on their own how to distribute the electoral votes that have been allocated to them. Most states award all of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in the state. This method of awarding electoral votes is commonly known as "winner-take-all."
Do all states distribute electoral votes that way?
No, but almost all do: 48 of the 50 U.S. states award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote there.
Which states don't use the winner-take-all method?
Only two states award their electoral votes in a different manner. They are Nebraska and Maine.
How do Nebraska and Maine allocate electoral votes?
They allocate their electoral votes by congressional district. In other words, instead of distributing all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote, Nebraska and Maine awards an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district. The winner of the statewide vote gets two additional electoral votes. This method is called the Congressional District Method; Maine has used it since 1972 and Nebraska has used it since 1996.
Doesn't the U.S. Constitution prohibit such distribution methods?
Not at all. In fact, it's just the opposite.
While the U.S. Constitution requires states to appoint electors, the document is silent on how they actually award votes in presidential elections. There have been numerous proposals to circumvent the winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes.
The Constitution leaves the matter of electoral-vote distribution up to the states, stating only that:
"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress." The key phrase pertaining to the distribution of electoral votes is obvious: " ... in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the states' role in awarding electoral votes is "supreme."
Controversy Over Electoral Vote Distribution
Former Vice President Al Gore has expressed concern about the way most states award electoral votes. He and a growing number of Americans support the National Popular Vote initiative. States that enter the compact agree to award their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.