When you vote in November, you won’t be casting your ballot directly for the Republican nominee or the Democratic nominee or any other candidate who wants to be President. Instead, you will be voting for the people who will actually “elect” the next President. They are called “electors,” and their names are often on the ballot, too. They are pledged to vote for a particular candidate, although some are unpledged.
Each state gets one elector for each member of its congressional delegation, and the District of Columbia gets as many as the least populous state (currently three), which makes a total of 538 electors. A candidate needs 270 votes to become President. This system is known as the Electoral College.
Originally, when electors cast their votes, they did not distinguish between the office of President and Vice President on their ballots—the candidate who got the most votes became President; the one with the second most became Vice President. After the contentious election of 1800, which resulted in a tie vote, problems with the Electoral College system became apparent.
The 12th Amendment, proposed in December 1803 and ratified in June 1804, attempted to correct some of the system’s problems by providing for separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President rather than just giving two votes to each elector.
Administering the Electoral College is one of the National Archives’ lesser known responsibilities. Until 1950 the Department of State held this responsibility. In that year President Harry S. Truman gave that role to the Archivist, who delegated it to Office of the Federal Register (OFR), which is part of the National Archives.
In 1952, the Office of the Federal Register oversaw its first Electoral College, and the process hasn’t changed much since. Before the November election, the OFR’s legal staff sends a package to state and District officials with an outline of their responsibilities and guidance for electors.
After the election, the Office of the Federal Register collects and reviews all Certificates of Ascertainment (the names of all the electors and how many votes each slate received). Then after the electors meet in their state capitals, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the OFR collects and reviews all Certificates of Vote (showing the electors’ choices for President and Vice President). The states must prepare multiple originals of both these certificates.
The OFR then works with the Senate to ensure they have all Certificates of Vote. In early January, the votes are counted before a Joint Session of Congress, which certifies the election.
If no candidate receives 270 votes, the House of Representatives chooses the President from among the top three vote-getters in the Electoral College. This has only happened twice in U.S. history—in the election of 1800 and the election of 1824. The Senate chooses the Vice President from among the two top candidates for Vice President.
The original pairs of each state’s certificates as well as the electoral tallies ultimately make their way to the National Archives. Therefore, the National Archives’ role is actually twofold—by administering the Electoral College, we ensure the integrity of the election; then by preserving the election documents, we ensure access for generations to come.