An elector is someone who participates, or has the right to participate, in an election, i.e., the selection, either by voting or by some other means, of a person (or persons) for a particular office or position. (The nouns 'elector' and 'election' come from the Latin verb eligere, which means 'to pick, choose, or select'.)
Many different types of office or position are, or have been, filled by means of an election; and, correspondingly, the number of persons entitled to participate in a particular election, i.e., the number of electors, may vary from a handful to many millions. Here are some examples:
- the election of Members of Parliament (MPs) (a General Election) or the members of a City, County, or Parish Council (a Local Election). This is probably the context in which the words 'election' and 'elector' are most commonly used in the United Kingdom. In a General Election, normally held every five years, an individual votes for the candidate whom he or she wishes to return to the House of Commons to represent his or her constituency, i.e., the area, whether town, part of a city, or rural area, in which he or she lives. The candidate who wins the greatest number of votes is elected - i.e., there is a 'first-past-the-post' system. The number of electors - referred to collectively as the electorate - in each constituency varies between about 55,000 and nearly 90,000, though in most constituencies it is between 60,000 and 80,000. The conduct of Local Elections, which are held every four years, is broadly similar, except that, of course, the constituencies are much smaller and that, as there are usually several positions on the Council to be filled, electors may vote for more than one candidate.
- the election of the President of the United States. The President of the United States is elected by the 538 members of the Electoral College, usually referred to as the Electors. In presidential elections, which are held every four years, the voters in each of the fifty American states vote for the candidate they wish to become President. However, the result of this vote does not directly determine who will become President, but rather the composition of the delegation of Electors which each state sends to the Electoral College. The size of each state's delegation reflects the size of the state, the number of Electors from each state corresponding to the number of members of Congress who represent that state. The Electors from each state must vote for the presidential candidate who won most votes in their state, and the candidate who secures a majority of votes in the Electoral College (i.e., 270 votes or more) becomes President. This system is seen as a compromise between the election of the President by direct popular vote and his (or her) election by the members of Congress, and helps to explain why a candidate that has been duly defeated may have in fact won a higher share of the popular vote. (The Vice-President is chosen in a similar way, i.e., by securing a majority of votes in the Electoral College.)
- the election of the Pope. On the death (or retirement) of a Pope his successor is chosen by the Cardinal Electors or College of Cardinals, i.e., all those Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church under the age of 80 at the time of the death (or retirement) of the previous Pope. In March 2013 115 Cardinals are eligible to participate in the election of a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. The Cardinals gather in conclave in the Vatican in Rome, and hold a series of elections - as many as four a day - in the Sistine Chapel until a candidate receives a two-thirds majority of the votes cast. (The word 'conclave' means 'a closed or sealed apartment' or 'a secret or confidential meeting'. It comes from the Latin conclave, which means 'room (that may be locked)', clavis being the Latin for 'key'.)
- the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. From the thirteenth century until the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 the Holy Roman Emperor was chosen by a small group of German princes and ecclesiastical rulers, often referred to as the Electors. Originally there were seven Electors - four secular (the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, and the King of Bohemia) and three ecclesiastical (the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne), but the size and composition of the group changed slightly over the centuries. Since the status of Elector was extremely prestigious - most of the princely rulers of German states were not Electors - a member of the Electoral College was sometimes referred to as, e.g., the Elector of Saxony rather than by his princely title, i.e., the Duke of Saxony. In the seventeenth century the Duke of Brunswick-LÃ¼neburg became a member of the Electoral College and was known as the Elector of Hanover, a title held by the first three English kings of the House of Hanover, George I, George II, and George III.
When a group of electors meet together for the purpose of an election, they may be said to form an 'Electoral College'. The word 'college' comes from the Latin collegium, 'a company or group of associates'. In a General Election in the United Kingdom, the electorate, whether at a national or at a constituency level, do NOT constitute a college since they do not meet together as a body. .