Electoral College. I INTRODUCTION Electoral College, the institution through which Americans elect the president and vice president of the United States. Many American voters are unaware of the electoral college's role, in part because they mistakenly believe that they directly elect the president and vice president. In fact, when they cast their ballots for president and vice president, they are voting for officials called electors who are assigned to each presidential candidate. Each state is allotted a number of electors equal to the number of its representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress. In addition, the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, adopted in 1961, permits residents of the District of Columbia to vote for three electors in the same manner as residents of the states. Through its power of apportioning representatives among the states, Congress determines the number of presidential electors to which each state is entitled. At the present time the total of state and District of Columbia electors is 538; a simple majority of 270 is necessary for election to the presidency. The electors have only one responsibility: to select the president and vice president. Each presidential candidate has a slate of electors assigned to that candidate. When the candidate wins the popular vote in a state or the District of Columbia, the electors assigned to that candidate are the ones who vote in the electoral college. To do so, they meet in their respective states or the District of Columbia about five weeks after the November presidential election to cast their votes. Normally, the meeting is a mere formality. The electors vote for the presidential candidate who received the greatest number of votes in their state. The electoral college simply ratifies the results of the popular vote. In most cases the candidate who wins the popular vote also wins the electoral college vote. If the election is close, however, as was the election of 2000, the electoral college may end up picking a candidate who did not receive most of the popular vote. The candidate who wins the presidency is the one who wins a majority of the electoral college votes, rather than a majority of the popular vote. On four occasions in U.S. history--in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000--the candidate with the most popular votes did not win the presidency because he did not win the most electoral college votes. This is because Americans do not directly elect their president and vice president. If Americans directly elected their president, then the candidate with the most votes would automatically win. II A HOW THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE WORKS Methods of Selection The U.S. Constitution sets forth only one requirement for serving as an elector. In Article II, Section 1, it provides that "no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector." No clear definition exists for the meaning of "office of trust or profit," but it is generally taken to mean that members of the Cabinet or other high-ranking executive branch members cannot serve as electors. (However, in the election of 1876, an elector from Oregon was challenged on the grounds that he was a postmaster.) States have developed several different procedures for selecting electors. The most prominent method is the state party convention. Currently, 37 states nominate electors at their state party conventions. In 11 states and the District of Columbia, the state party's central committee makes the selection. Two other states leave the decision to the state parties to choose a method of selection. The persons chosen at this stage are not yet actual electors. They must be formally appointed. All state legislatures have by law conferred upon the citizens of the state the right to choose electors in the November election. As of 2000, the District of Columbia and all states except Maine and Nebraska had adopted the winner-take-all system. Under the winner-take-all system, the electors assigned to the candidate who won most of the vote in their state are all represented in the electoral college. Maine and Nebraska, however, employ the district system. Under this system, two electors are awarded to the winner of the statewide popular vote, and the remaining electors are awarded to the popular vote winner in each of the state's congressional districts. Only a handful of states print the names of candidates for elector on the ballot. In the vast majority of states, when the voter votes for a party's candidates for president and vice president, the voter is simply assumed to have voted for the party's candidates for elector. B Counting the Votes The electors meet, according to federal law, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December in a presidential election year. The Constitution requires that they meet "in their respective states" all across the country. Strictly speaking, therefore, there is no "college" of electors because they never convene jointly in a single national assembly. Most states provide by law that their electors meet in the state capital. Typically, these meetings are ceremonial; no debates occur, for there is nothing to debate. In about half the states, electors are formally "pledged"--that is, they are legally committed to vote for the candidate of the party with which they are affiliated. In the remaining states, electors are "unpledged," meaning that no explicit legal requirement exists to vote for the affiliated candidate. Still, even unpledged electors could face legal difficulties if they "faithlessly" voted for a candidate other than the one associated with their slate of electors. This is because the people of the state voted for that slate of electors with the reasonable expectation that those electors would loyally reflect the peoples' choice. In fact, the problem of "faithless electors" has been more theoretical than real. About 20,000 electors voted in all presidential elections from 1789 to 2000, and fewer than a dozen voted faithlessly. The outcome of an election has never been changed by faithless electors--nevertheless, it could happen. Each elector is required by federal law to sign and seal six copies of a certificate listing the elector's choice for president and vice president. One copy is sent to the president of the United States Senate--that is, the incumbent vice president of the United States--who announces the results when the electoral votes are counted in Washington, D.C., on January 6 (or January 7 if the 6th falls on a Sunday). The vote count is done in a joint session of Congress that meets in the chamber of the House of Representatives. The incumbent vice president presides. The actual counting is done by members of Congress appointed to do the vote count. For this occasion they are called tellers. After the results are announced, any member may object to the counting of any electoral vote from any state (on the ground that it was not "regularly given"--a term federal law does not define). To sustain the objection, both houses of Congress must agree, each by a majority vote, that the vote should not be counted. This has happened several times. After the elections of 1820 and 1832 Congress rejected votes on technical grounds. Some votes cast in 1872 were rejected because they had been cast for a deceased candidate (Horace Greeley). A vote in the election of 1880 was rejected because it had been made on the wrong day. If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the Constitution requires that the U.S. president be chosen by the House of Representatives. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution requires that the House "immediately" choose the president "by ballot" from among the presidential candidates receiving the highest number of votes in the electoral college. If there are more than two candidates receiving electoral college votes, then the House chooses from the three candidates who received the most votes. In the House election each state has one vote. Representatives from each state vote to decide which candidate will carry the state. The votes are taken state-by-state in alphabetical order. A majority of all the states, or 26 votes, is necessary to win. III HISTORY OF THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE A Origins One thing is clear about the political theory underpinning the electoral college: The framers of the Constitution could not agree on one. From the outset, the framers were uncertain about how the president should be chosen. Meeting in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1787, the framers originally decided to have Congress choose the president, and that there should be no popular vote to elect the president. Then the Constitutional Convention decided that the president should be chosen by electors. Later consideration restored the choice to Congress. Toward the close of the convention, a committee came up with the main outlines of the procedure used to this day, selection by electors. The framers' uncertainty was generated by disagreement over the role of the people, the Congress, and the states in the political process. Many delegates to the convention, including Virginia's James Madison, favored popular election of the president. But others, such as Massachusetts's Elbridge Gerry, feared the "ignorance of the people." Virginia's George Mason thought that to refer the choice of president to the people would be to "refer a trial of colors to a blind man." These doubts about the people's ability to choose a president led to misgivings about the competence of the proposed electoral college. Some delegates therefore preferred that Congress select the president. South Carolina's Charles Pinckney argued that because members of Congress would be "immediately interested in the laws made by themselves," they would be likely to select a "fit man to carry them properly into execution." Connecticut's Roger Sherman also favored letting Congress choose so as to make the president "absolutely dependent on that body." But most of the delegates in Philadelphia opposed congressional selection. Gerry argued that there would be "constant intrigue kept up for the appointment." Pennsylvania's Robert Morris argued that the president should not be the "mere creature of the Legislature." Madison, too, believed that congressional selection would leave the chief executive "under the influence of an improper obligation" to the Congress. Unable to agree on either selection by Congress or selection by the people, some other alternative was required. The framers thus settled on the electoral college. This choice represented a compromise. The losers--at least in the first stage of the new electoral structure--were the proponents of popular sovereignty (the doctrine that the people determine directly how they are ruled and that government is subject to the will of the people). Electors would be chosen by the state legislatures with no reference to popular preference. If the electoral college were to deadlock, however, the election would be decided by the House of Representatives. There, state sovereignty would prevail, because each state delegation would have one vote, regardless of the size of the state's population. One other compromise was reached that bore upon the size of a state's number of electors--the infamous "three-fifths" clause. A slave, it was agreed, was to count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining a state's population, and thus the number of its representatives in Congress and the number of its electors to the electoral college. B First Years of the Electoral College Under the new scheme, each state was permitted to appoint electors "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct," as the Constitution spelled out in Article II, Section 1. Because delegates to the Constitutional Convention were so deeply divided on how the president should be chosen, the framers decided not to require the states to follow a given method of selection. Instead they chose to give the states broad discretion in deciding how to appoint electors. The whole matter "was entrusted to the State Legislatures," Charles Pinckney said in 1800. "[T]hey must make provisions for all questions arising on the occasion." During the first several presidential elections, state legislatures settled upon three principal modes of selection. The first was selection of electors by the state legislature itself. Most state legislatures appointed presidential electors in this manner in the first three presidential elections. A second technique was the so-called district system, in which electors were selected by popular elections held in each congressional district of a state. (Madison believed at the time of the Constitutional Convention that this would be the most common method of selecting electors, but it soon became rare.) The third approach was the winner-take-all, or "general ticket," system. Under it, a popular election was held statewide in which every qualified voter participated in determining the electors selected. As early as 1804 most of the state legislatures instituted the direct, popular election of presidential electors, and their methods of voting were about evenly divided between statewide, winner-take-all, and district voting. As voting rights in the United States broadened after 1800 and the electorate began to exercise greater political influence, more and more states adopted popular selection of electors. In those states with popular selection, voting by district became less and less frequent. By 1836 all the states except South Carolina selected their electors by statewide popular vote. (South Carolina continued to choose its electors through the state legislature until 1868.) C The 12th Amendment Alters the System Under the original Constitution, electors did not vote separately for president and vice president as they do today. They simply cast two votes without distinguishing between president and vice president. When the votes were counted, the framers of the Constitution expected that the runner-up was to be vice president. They failed to realize that two candidates could end up with an equal number of votes. In fact the Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton realized that a tie was possible, and in the first election of 1789 he advised electors in various states to vote for George Washington for president but not for John Adams for vice president. No problems arose in the election of 1789 or in the election of 1792, even though the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties had begun to coalesce and the political process was becoming increasingly partisan. By 1800, however, the early unanimity surrounding George Washington's presidency had long since broken down. The Democratic-Republican Party (the forerunner of today's Democratic Party) ran Thomas Jefferson as its presidential candidate and Aaron Burr as its vice presidential candidate. But an equal number of electors voted for both Jefferson and Burr. As provided by the Constitution, the election was thus thrown into the House of Representatives where each of the states then in existence had one vote. The House had to vote 36 times, casting ballots over a period of six days, before Jefferson finally received a majority of the votes. Ten states voted for Jefferson and four states voted for Burr. Burr, finishing second, became vice president. Clearly, the system had to be changed. If all electors from the same party voted for the same two individuals, a tie would result. The election would end up in the House, raising the possibility of an inverted result in which the person intended to be president became vice president, and vice versa. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution successfully remedied this problem. The amendment required electors to vote separately for presidential and vice presidential candidates. D Disputed Elections of 1824 and 1876 But even after the ratification of the amendment in 1804, the House of Representatives continued to be charged with the responsibility of breaking a deadlock in the electoral college. This is precisely what it was required to do following the election of 1824. Four candidates ran in that election: John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William H. Crawford, and Andrew Jackson. No candidate received a majority of the electoral votes, so the House proceeded to vote. Adams won in the House on the first ballot--even though he received fewer popular votes than Jackson, who won more electoral votes as well. In 1876 the electoral system came closest to collapse. Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate, received 50.9 percent of the popular vote. The Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, received 47.9 percent. But the results in the electoral college were much closer. A candidate at the time needed 185 votes to win a majority in the electoral college and election as president. Hayes received exactly 185, but he was left with only 184 when congressional Democrats challenged one of his votes in Oregon, throwing the outcome of the election in Oregon into doubt. The Republicans then challenged Tilden's 19 electoral votes in the Southern states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, charging that the Democrats had won in those states by intimidating black voters. All four states--Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina--sent double sets of electors to Congress. Partisan differences within Congress over which set of electors was valid made it impossible for Congress to declare that no candidate had received a majority. The House therefore could not meet, as it had in 1800 and 1824, to resolve the deadlock. Congress was able to agree, however, to set up a bipartisan commission, known as the Electoral Commission of 1877, to resolve the issue. The commission awarded all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes, giving him the electoral votes of the states of Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina and therefore, the election. In response the Democrats staged a filibuster in Congress. This led to what is variously known as the Hayes-Tilden agreement or the Compromise of 1877. In exchange for the Democrats' acceptance of the Electoral Commission's finding, Hayes promised to meet several of the Democrats' demands, including the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, which effectively ended the period known as Reconstruction. Hayes assumed the presidency with a margin of one electoral vote. In response to this debacle, Congress in 1887 enacted the Electoral Count Act. The act made the states the initial judge of the validity of their electoral votes. However, the act permitted Congress to reject a given electoral vote if a majority in both the House and Senate objected to its being counted. A modern version of this procedure is set forth in Title 3 of the United States Code. The U.S. Code consolidates all federal laws. E The Influence of Political Parties Political parties have come to be the dominant factor in the process by which presidential electors are chosen. Members of the "slate" of electors pledged to vote for a party's presidential candidate normally are chosen from among party activists. Often the party extracts a pledge from those running for elector that they will vote for the nominee of the convention. In Ray v Blair (1952), the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the right of political parties to require such a pledge. On the other hand, the Court has not accorded the two major parties the power to lock in their dominance to the point that the candidates of newly emerging parties are excluded altogether from access to the ballot. In Williams v Rhodes (1968), the Court invalidated Ohio statutes that made it virtually impossible for new political parties to be placed on the state ballot to choose presidential electors. Still, in 2004 the winner-take-all system remained in place in all states but two, making it difficult to challenge the power of the two established political parties. F The Winner-Take-All System The winner-take-all system awards all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate receiving the greatest number of statewide popular votes. (This may be a plurality rather than a majority.) Conversely, this means that a candidate who finishes second by a narrow margin gets no electoral votes at all. One effect of this system is to reinforce the established parties' hold on power, because it is more difficult for a third-party upstart to win a majority of electoral votes or even to influence the outcome of a presidential election by winning enough electoral votes to throw an election into the House. Groups that might otherwise have started their own parties have therefore had an incentive to work through the major parties rather than to confront them. Farmers, labor unions, and business groups, as well as ethnic and religious minorities, are thus encouraged by the winner-take-all system to find a home within the two-party system. The winner-take-all system reinforces the existing power structure, and it is no surprise that it has been strongly supported by the two major parties that benefit from it. The winner-take-all system has been criticized in that it lessens the likelihood of multiparty choices and thereby limits the ability of voters to "let off some steam" by voting for a candidate with a philosophy that might be closer to their own. The fewer candidates in the field, the greater the likelihood that a voter will feel alienated by the lack of a real choice. In some circumstances, it is suggested, the safety valve afforded by alternative party choices could prove useful in maintaining governmental legitimacy. Another disadvantage of the winner-take-all system, according to its critics, is that it tends to exclude the population of some states from the national political dialogue. In every presidential election, some states are "in play" and others are not, meaning that one political party has effectively conceded the state to its opponent. As a result, neither party tends to spend much money in that state on political advertising or do much campaigning, which would go for naught. If electoral votes were awarded on a district-by-district basis, it has been argued, more advertising and campaigning would occur and therefore more Americans would be included in the national election-year dialogue. Of course, some districts would also not be "in play," but it is likely that candidates would have to campaign in more states, thereby involving more of the population in the election-year dialogue. Yet at least one disadvantage of the winner-take-all system is also an advantage, supporters of the system argue. The system tends to deny tiny groups the opportunity to swing an election by extracting commitments that a majority of voters would reject. In 1948, for example, the segregationist "Dixiecrat" candidacy of South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond won 39 electoral votes. Had 12,487 popular votes shifted in California or Ohio, neither Truman nor Dewey would have won an Electoral College majority. In that case, Thurmond's negotiating strength would have been enhanced far beyond his electoral popularity. IV DEBATE OVER THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE The most common criticism of the electoral college, and in particular the winner-take-all system, is that it makes possible "the wrong winner"--that is, a candidate who did not win the popular election. These critics say the winner-take-all system is largely responsible for the possibility that a candidate can be elected president even though he or she polls fewer popular votes than the opponent. If a candidate receives a minority of the popular vote nationally but carries a sufficient number of states to ensure a majority of the electoral votes, the candidate is elected. As a result the will of the majority can be frustrated through the normal operation of the electoral college. Basic democratic principles, the critics argue, suggest that the people ought to be able to decide directly who should govern them. They point to the dispute caused by the election of 1876 and also to the elections of 1888 and 2000. In the 1888 election Democrat Grover Cleveland, the defeated candidate, polled about 100,000 more popular votes than Republican Benjamin Harrison. In the states that Cleveland carried, however, he received only 168 electoral votes to Harrison's 233. Harrison won key states having large numbers of electoral votes by narrow margins and lost states having fewer electoral votes by large margins. In the highly disputed 2000 election, Democrat Al Gore, the losing candidate, won more than 500,000 more popular votes than Republican George W. Bush, but Bush won the presidency by capturing 271 electoral votes to Gore's 266. Further, the critics argue that the electoral college is outmoded because the government of the United States has changed fundamentally since the nation was founded. Early in U.S. history it was intended that the government would take the form of a republic, in which the people give elected representatives and officials the power to govern for them. However, the critics suggest, the U.S. government has, over the course of more than 200 years, gradually become a democracy in which elected officials are expected to reflect the views of their constituents and to subordinate their own views. Consequently, they argue, thwarting the direct will of the people through the intervention of intermediaries--such as presidential electors--is no longer appropriate. Defenders of the electoral college respond that these disadvantages are outweighed by benefits, which are often unappreciated. A "wrong winner" emerges only rarely, the defenders point out. More often, the electoral college tends to magnify the results of a popular victory, which thus lends legitimacy to the election results and helps provide the winner with a mandate for legislative or executive initiatives. For example, in 1912 Woodrow Wilson received only a 41 percent plurality of the popular vote but won 81 percent of the electoral vote. Moreover, the defenders argue that abolishing the electoral college would likely have unforeseeable consequences that could alter every element of the political system. No one can predict, they suggest, how abolition of the electoral college would affect state political parties, campaign finance, the power of minorities, the strength of the presidency versus Congress, the strength of the federal government versus state governments, or the vitality of the two-party system. This is why John F. Kennedy, as a senator, opposed abolishing the electoral college. "It is not only the unit vote for the presidency we are talking about," he said, "but a whole solar system of governmental power. If it is proposed to change the balance of power of one of the elements of the solar system, it is necessary to consider the others." V PROPOSALS FOR REFORM Proposals for reform of the electoral college began in the earliest days of the republic. Indeed, it is the part of the Constitution most often subject to proposals for modification. Aside from abolition of the electoral college and the substitution of direct election by the people, the most common proposals retain the system of electoral votes but alter its operation. One suggestion, for example, would automatically assign a proportionate number of a state's electoral votes to a candidate based upon that candidate's popular vote total in that state. This suggestion would make less likely a "wrong winner," but it would retain electors and does not seem to have any greater advantage over direct election. Yet another proposal, the so-called national bonus plan, would add a fixed number of electoral votes to the existing electoral college total of the candidate with the greatest number of votes nationwide. This plan would further reduce the possibility of a wrong winner. However, in a three-way race this plan could distort the election outcome by adding to the electoral vote total of a candidate who received a popular plurality while remaining the second or third choice of most voters. None of these or other proposed reforms has ever come close to being adopted, for two reasons. First, small states receive an advantage by having the electoral college. The vote of a voter in Alaska or Montana counts for more than the vote of a voter in California or New York. Although Alaska and Montana each have only three electoral votes, three is still more than they would be allotted if electoral votes were apportioned solely on the basis of population. Most legislators in states with small populations then would be unlikely to support the abolition of the electoral college. Abolishing the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment. For such an amendment to be ratified, three-fourths of the states would have to approve. But 20 of the 50 states have six or fewer electoral votes and would be unlikely to support such an amendment, effectively blocking it since 38 states are needed for ratification. Second, abolition would trade known problems for risks that are not known. Until a reform proposal comes along that does not clearly imperil "the whole solar system of governmental power," it is likely that Americans will continue to live with the shortcomings of the electoral college rather than risk something worse. "There are objections," Madison wrote, "against every mode that has been, or perhaps can be proposed." It is, perhaps more than anything, the comparative merit of the electoral college that has accounted for its survival for more than 200 years. Contributed By: Michael J. Glennon Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.