The Electoral College — can anyone apply?

When it comes to U.S. presidential elections, one of the most popular misconceptions is that voters directly vote for one candidate or another. What the voters actually do is choose a slate of electors in their state who make up the Electoral College. There are 538 Electoral College votes: 100 represent the two senators from each state, 435 represent the number of congressional districts, and 3 were provided to the District of Columbia by the Twenty-third Amendment (1961).

Although each state technically may decide how to choose electors, almost every state uses a winner-take-all system in which the presidential candidate with the most votes gets all of that state's electoral votes. A majority (270) of the votes in the Electoral College must be won for the candidate to be elected president. If no candidate receives a majority, the election is decided by the House of Representatives, with each state having one vote.

The Electoral College has come under particularly intense scrutiny since the 2000 election, because Vice President Al Gore won the "people's" popular vote but narrowly lost the vote among electors. Furthermore, the closeness of the contest meant that voting irregularities in Florida, such as confusing ballots, may have cost Gore the election — and no state's election laws should decide who holds the presidency. On the other hand, some commentators say that the troublesome 2000 election showed exactly why the Electoral College system is a good one. In such a close election, representatives of both parties would have combed through the records everywhere to find more support for their candidates. With the Electoral College, though, the parties were able to focus their battle on the legal and practical issues involved in one state's voting. Regardless of the merits on each side in this debate, ending the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment, and therefore is unlikely to happen.