The Electoral College is a constitutionally mandated process that determines who serves as president and vice president of the United States every four years. Electoral votes in each state based on the popular vote, though the popular vote does not directly decide presidential winners.
This institution is oft-discussed in political media, typically with electoral maps for Republicans and Democrats with red states and blue states. But how do millions of votes across the country turn into 538 electoral votes?
To answer that question, we first need to understand the Electoral College’s beginnings and evolution.
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Origins of the Electoral College
Delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia wrestled with many questions including the then-novel idea of a president as head of state. The former British colonists did not want an American monarchy. The question of how to select a president attracted proposals ranging from a national popular vote to election by Congress or state legislatures.
There was a lack of support for any of the proposed presidential election systems. Delegates from smaller states feared a national popular vote would favor industrial centers, while advocates for strong checks and balances disliked legislative elections. James Madison of Virginia proposed an intermediary step involving electors as a compromise.
This compromise was included in the Constitution within Article 2, Section 1 with each state required to appoint a number of electors equal to their members of Congress. The number of electors grew over time as new states were added and growing populations led to more congressional districts. Each elector’s sole constitutional duty is to vote for president and vice president. The term Electoral College has been used since because Madison referred to a “college” of electors during constitutional deliberations.
Article 2, Section 1 did not include language separating electoral votes for president and vice president. Rather, electors were asked to cast ballots for two people with at least one person not from their home states. A joint session of Congress was tasked with counting electoral votes and naming the top vote recipient as president and the second-place recipient as vice president.
In 1796, political adversaries John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were elected as president and vice president based on the original electoral system. The modern practice of presidential tickets was not used in these early years and the Adams-Jefferson partnership was fraught with conflict.
In 1800, the limits of the Electoral College were tested when Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied in the Electoral College and each made claim to the presidency. Article 2, Section 1 required the House of Representatives to break electoral ties by taking votes of each state delegation. In this scenario, each state received one vote and a majority of delegations was necessary to break the tie.
Jefferson was named the winner after 36 ballots and the course was set for ratification of the 12th Amendment. The amendment ratified in 1804 requires Electoral College voters to cast separate ballots for president and vice president. The 12th Amendment was passed and ratified in six months as state and federal legislators saw potential damage to American government from repeats of 1800. This change in electoral votes also solidified the concept of presidential tickets for future elections.
The only other reform impacting the Electoral College was the granting of electoral votes to the District of Columbia under the 23rd Amendment in 1961. This amendment granted D.C. three votes in the Electoral College, equal to the smallest states in the nation.
Article 2, Section 1 prohibits current members of Congress or federal officials from serving as members of the Electoral College. The selection process is left up to the state legislatures, which have deferred to state chapters of political parties with presidential candidates.
Each state party with a presidential candidate selects a slate of electoral voters. This process differs from state to state with selection often done within party conventions and executive committees. During the presidential general election, voters are technically selecting slates of candidates committed to voting for their party’s presidential ticket.
A state party’s electoral slate typically includes current state legislators, party officials, and luminaries with connections to national politics. Party activists may also receive nominations if they participate in open convention voting or primaries.
Popular Vote and the Electoral College
The Electoral College is unique among the world’s democracies as an institution designed solely to indirectly elect presidents and vice presidents. The Constitution is silent, however, on how a state’s electoral votes are allocated.
From 1787 to 1836, a majority of states asked their legislatures to allocate electoral votes. The remaining states during this time allocated by statewide popular vote winner or based on top vote recipient in each congressional district. As voting rights slowly expanded, states shifted to the statewide popular vote model.
Today, 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia allocate all of their electoral votes to the winners of their popular votes. Maine and Nebraska allow for the division of their electoral votes based on the presidential vote recipients in each congressional district. In Maine and Nebraska, the statewide popular vote winner receives two electoral votes and the remaining votes are divided based on votes for president by congressional district. Maine adopted this practice in 1972, while Nebraska made this change in 1992.
The phrase Electoral College may bring to mind a building full of voters but electors do not assemble in a single location. In fact, the Constitution mentions electors rather than an Electoral College. Each state’s electors meet in the state capitol on the first Monday after the second Tuesday of December following a presidential election as required by a 1936 federal law. Each state’s top election official certifies electoral votes and transmits the results to Congress.
Electors in 29 states and the District of Columbia are compelled by state law to vote for their party’s candidate if they win the statewide popular vote. An elector who does not comply with their party’s wishes is known as a faithless elector. There has been at least one faithless elector in 21 presidential election with no prosecutions under faithless elector laws. Regardless of state law, faithless electors face potential sanctions within their parties for voting against party wishes.
A joint session of Congress meets on January 6 following the presidential election to review and certify electoral votes. Two members of the House and two members of the Senate are selected to announce the results of each state’s meeting of electoral voters. The vice president certifies the winner of the Electoral College vote unless there is an objection raised by a member of Congress. An objection needs to be signed by a member of each body and approved by both bodies to invalidate votes.
The most recent instance of electoral vote objections leading to chamber debates followed the 2004 election. As the joint session came to Ohio’s electoral votes, objections were raised by at least one Democratic representative and one Democratic senator due to alleged vote irregularities in the state. The objections were heard in each chamber but rejected by large majorities.
The winner of the electoral vote has reflected a majority winner in the national popular vote in all but four elections since the nation’s founding. A split between popular vote and electoral vote took place in 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. A fifth election – 1824 – featured a winner selected by Congress who did not win the popular or electoral vote. The elections of 1888 and 2016 did not require intervention by Congress or courts.
The 1824 election concluded with Andrew Jackson winning a plurality of the electoral and popular votes. The Constitution requires that electoral winners receive a majority of the vote, thus triggering a vote in Congress. The congressional vote went to runner-up John Quincy Adams, infuriating Jackson and his supporters and leading to a contentious presidential election in 1828.
In 1876, the election between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden was not decided until the eve of inauguration. Tilden led Hayes in the popular vote and the electoral vote was incomplete due to challenged results in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Hayes and Tilden electoral votes from these three states were submitted to Congress.
The absence of a constitutional remedy led Congress to create a 15-member electoral commission tasked with resolving these disputes. By March 1877, the commission ruled in favor of Hayes electoral voters in three states, giving Hayes the necessary majority to assume the presidency.
The 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was undecided after Election Day with the result hanging on Florida’s electoral votes. The Florida popular vote was close enough to trigger a mandatory recount and subsequent legal challenges. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling found the recount unconstitutional and the original certification of a narrow Bush win led to his election as president.
In the 21st century, there have been debates over whether the Electoral College should be maintained, reformed, or abolished. Advocates for retaining electoral votes argue that smaller states would have little influence in presidential elections without the Electoral College. There are also constitutionalists who believe that the document’s components should be left untouched.
Supporters of electoral reform argue that the Electoral College does not reflect the will of American voters. Reformers also suggest that changing demographics create a gulf between the voice of voters and Electoral College math. Abolition or substantial reform of the electoral vote process would require a constitutional amendment. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a movement among reformers for states to cast their electoral votes with the national popular vote winner.
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