it's a very confusing text for a foreign mind to interpret. According to this explanation from Wikipedia - US Electoral College:

All states currently choose presidential electors by popular vote. As of 2020, eight states name the electors on the ballot. Mostly, the "short ballot" is used; the short ballot displays the names of the candidates for president and vice president, rather than the names of prospective electors.

What I glean from it is that there is an election for electors so then there can be a presidential election or some other election of sort. Meaning an elector must be elected first. Is that so?

  • 3
    BTW, this structure is equally incomprehensible to English language natives who don't come from the US. You're not alone. May 26 at 17:08
  • 1
    I’m voting to close this question because it's really about the complexities of the American presidential election system, rather than the actual use of English attempting to describe those complexities. May 26 at 18:21
  • @FumbleFingers But at the core of the question is the use of the word elector, which does have different usages.
    – Werrf
    May 26 at 19:03
  • Even when you completely understand the text as an English speaker, the concept itself is kinda confusing. May 26 at 21:39
  • @Werrf: I don't see any "difference" in the use of the term elector - except insofar as the American context involves nested levels of "electors", some of whom are elected themselves. But that's the system, rather than a different meaning as such. I haven't bothered to dig too deeply, but I'm inclined to suspect that strictly speaking it's a misuse, because those "elected electors" don't actually have a choice about who they vote for themselves - they're on a ticket which obliges them to vote for a certain candidate (could they elect to vote differently?! :) May 27 at 10:13

2 Answers 2


The confusing part seems to be the meaning of the word electors, especially because it's being used in an unusual way here.

In modern English in most cases, elector refers to a regular citizen who is entitled to vote in an election. It's interchangable with the word voter.

This case is actually closer to an archaic use. In the Holy Roman Empire, an elector was a German prince who was entitled to take part in electing the Holy Roman Emperor - a much more select body.

This is due to the rather odd election system used in the US. As initially envisaged, the president would be elected by the states, not by the people. The people would elect their own local government, and their congressmen, but the senators and the president would be chosen by the states as a whole. So the process is that in a US presidential election, the population of the state will vote for a group of electors; these electors will go to Washington DC and will then vote for a presidential candidate.

Normally these days, the electors have a largely symbolic role, and they will vote for whichever candidate got the most votes in their state. In most states, though, there's no actual requirement for them to vote for that person; it's possible for them to be a so-called "faithless elector", and vote for someone else.

  • so there is actually two elections right? one for the people to "Pick" the electors and another for thee electors to "pick" a presidential candidate right?
    – ilma pav
    May 26 at 15:33
  • @ilmapav That's correct. There's the General Election in November, which is the one everyone pays attention to; then there's a second election in December, which is mostly a formality, where the electors pick the president.
    – Werrf
    May 26 at 15:37
  • Yes, except for the "go to DC" part. As originally envisaged, and in reality, the electors vote in their state and the votes are sent to the Senate to be counted. The electors would not have been expected to personally travel.
    – James K
    May 27 at 4:47

I think the issue here is more one of America's political institutions than of language. So let me explain in terms of the politics and let the language fall out from that.

In the US, the way we elect our president is, basically: The voters choose who they want for president. But we don't simply count the total number of votes for each candidate. Rather, each state gets a certain number of votes depending on its population. Then all of that states' votes go to whichever candidate got the most votes in that state. So for example, my state of Michigan gets 16 electoral votes. There are about 5,400,000 voters in Michigan. So if 2,700,001 voted for Jones and 2,699,999 voted for Smith, Jones would get all 16 of Michigan's votes.

(How elections are conducted in each state is up to state law, so a few states, Nebraska, Maine, maybe there's another one or two I'm forgetting, will split their votes.)

Mechanically, the way this is done is that when the citizens vote, they are not REALLY voting for a candidate for president, but rather for an "elector" who is committed to voting for that candidate. So as Michigan gets 16 votes, Michigan will choose 16 "electors". Each party puts up a slate of electors. So the Republicans nominate 16 electors, the Democrats nominate 16 electors, and any other parties who qualify to be on the ballot each nominate 16 electors. Whichever slate wins, their electors get to vote.

The electors then meet at the state capital a few weeks after the popular vote to officially cast their votes. These votes are then delivered to the national capitol where they are officially counted in front of the Senate.

Some states have laws that say that an elector is required to vote for the candidate he is pledged to. Other states say that, theoretically at least, an elector could vote for anyone. And every election we have there are always a handful of electors who vote for someone else. These are called "faithless electors". There has never been a case in US history where electors changing their vote has changed the outcome of an election.

In the 2016 election, when Mr Trump won, there was a concerted effort by Democrats to convince Republican electors to vote for a "compromise candidate". The plan failed. Only 2 Republicans switched their votes: One voted for John Kasich and another for Ron Paul. Meanwhile 8 Democrats switched their votes: 3 for Bernie Sanders, 3 for Colin Powell, 1 for John Kasich, and 1 for Faith Spotted Eagle. (In my humble opinion, the plan was pretty far-fetched. When the outcome is in doubt, someone might agree to a compromise. But why would you agree to a compromise when by doing nothing you win?)

So all that said, what the text you quote is saying is that in some states, they show the name of the electors on the ballot along with the name of the presidential candidate they are pledge to vote for. In most states, they just list the presidential candidate. So in most states, most voters don't even know the name of the elector that they're voting for. Because it really doesn't matter. I saw one news story about the electors in my state meeting to vote and the reporter described the electors as "getting a footnote in history".

  • You might add that the reason for this circumstance is historical: When the process was conceived, there were no phones, no telegraph, no cars and no railroads. Instead of transporting documents, the respective state vote was transported "in person". The assembly of all electors is the "electoral college", a kind of temporary congress, a compromise between a faction that wanted the real congress to elect the President, and those who wanted a popular vote, when the constitution was written. May 27 at 1:30
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica Yes, there's a lot more that could be said about the history and reasons for it. I was struggling between how much to say without getting too far off from the language question.
    – Jay
    May 27 at 15:40
  • Admittedly, it does go off :-). On the other hand a little background adds to the understanding of the language. May 27 at 15:42

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