Electoral college is the popular name for the system used to elect the president and vice president of the United States. Voters in the United States choose among candidates for these offices in November every four years, but the votes they cast are actually for another office, that of elector. In most states the names of the candidates for elector are not even on the ballot. Those chosen as electors collectively constitute the electoral college, a body that never meets as a group. State delegations of electors meet in early December in their respective state capitols to cast their “electoral votes” for president and vice president. These votes are then counted in early January at a session of Congress. If a majority of the electoral votes for president (at least 270 of a total of 538) is cast for the same person, that person wins the presidency. Likewise, if a majority of the electoral votes for vice president is cast for the same person, that person wins that office.
If no person receives a majority of the electoral votes for president, the selection of the president is placed with the U.S. House of Representatives. If no person receives a majority of votes for vice president, selection for that office is placed with the U.S. Senate. When this “contingent election” procedure is used to select a president, every state delegation in the House has one vote, which may only be cast for one of the top three recipients of electoral votes for that office. The winner must receive the vote from a majority of the states. When the contingent procedure is used to select the vice president, each senator has one vote, and only the top two recipients of electoral votes for that office may be considered. The winner must receive a vote from a majority of the senators.
This framework for electing a president and a vice president is specified in Article II, section 1, of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789. This provision awards each state a number of electors equal to the number of members the state has in Congress, with one elector assigned for each of the state’s representatives and senators. Representatives are allotted to the states based on population, with the caveat that every state must receive at least one. Larger states therefore have more electors than smaller states. Every state, however, is allotted the same number of senators, two, regardless of population. This allocation, along with the minimum of one representative for every state, results in smaller states receiving proportionately more electoral votes, per population, than larger states.
Two amendments to the Constitution have directly altered the electoral college system. The Twelfth Amendment, adopted in 1804, separated electoral voting for the president and the vice president. Prior to this amendment each elector had two votes to cast and the person receiving the highest number of votes, provided that number constituted a vote from a majority of the electors, won the presidency. The vice presidency went to the person receiving the second highest number of votes. In the election of 1800 this resulted in the presidential and vice presidential candidates of one party receiving the same number of votes from a majority of the electors, pushing the selection of the president into the House. The Twelfth Amendment was added to preclude this type of result. The other amendment altering the electoral college was the Twenty-Third, adopted in 1961, which allowed voters in the District of Columbia, which is not a state, to choose as many electors as the least populous state, currently three. These electoral votes are cast in Washington, D.C.
Article II, Section 1, leaves the method of choosing electors to the states themselves, through their respective legislatures. Since 1836 all states but one have let the voters make this choice; the exception, South Carolina, switched to popular elections in 1860. Another important change made by states has been the adoption, by all but two states, of the “unit rule” for allocating electors to the candidates. Candidates for elector are vetted by the political parties and pledged to vote for that party’s candidates. This unit rule is a winner-take-all provision under which all of a state’s electors are awarded to the slate of presidential and vice presidential candidates that received the most votes in that state in November. Congress has specified that the unit rule applies to electors for the District of Columbia as well. Maine and Nebraska award two electoral votes to the slate of candidates winning a statewide plurality of votes, and another electoral vote to the slates winning a plurality within each of their U.S. House districts.
Commentators have described the electoral college as everything from “a brilliant constitutional device” (Ross 2004, p. 9) to “an anti-democratic relic of the eighteenth century” (Edwards 2004, p. 158). Those who defend the electoral college typically assert that it is a fundamental part of the American federal system of government that needs to be maintained, and that it provides more diverse interests, especially those of smaller states, with a voice in the election of the president. Those who find the system antidemocratic argue that the people, not the electors, should determine who is elected. The votes cast in November for president and vice president, which only determine how electoral votes are distributed among sets of candidates, do show which slate of candidates was preferred by the people. With rare exception, the people’s choice and the electors’ choice are the same. But when the popular vote is close, the unit rule and the fact that electors are not allocated based strictly on population make it possible for the winners of the two votes to be different.
This happened in the 2000 election, when George W. Bush finished second in the popular vote with 47.8 percent, but first in the electoral vote with 50.5 percent. He was labeled by many as the “wrong winner.” Presidents and vice presidents chosen under the contingent election procedure likewise need not be the public’s choice.
The American public has demonstrated numerous times, in surveys and polls, that they prefer their president and vice president to be their choices, not those of intermediaries. A variety of reforms have been proposed that would accomplish this (see Edwards 2004, pp. 153–157; Bennett 2006, pp. 49–58, 161–178; and Koza et al. 2006).
SEE ALSO Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Democracy, Representative and Participatory; Democratic Party, U.S.; Elections; Presidency, The; Republican Party; Voting
Bennett, Robert W. 2006. Taming the Electoral College. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Koza, John R., Barry Fadem, Mark Grueskin, et al. 2006. Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote. Los Altos, CA: National Popular Vote Press.
Ross, Tara. 2004. Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College. Los Angeles: World Ahead Publishing.
Richard L. Engstrom
ELECTORAL COLLEGE. Created by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the electoral college selects individuals for the U.S. presidency and vice presidency. It has been modified both by extra-constitutional developments, like the growth of political parties, and by constitutional amendments.
Origins and Procedures
Delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention divided the national government into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. This arrangement seemed incompatible with a system, like that in most parliamentary democracies, in which the majority party or coalition within the legislature selects the chief executive. Convention delegates were especially fearful that the legislature might exert undue influence on individuals who were seeking reelection. Some delegates favored electing the president by direct popular vote, but this was not particularly feasible at a time before computer technology, and delegates feared that many members of the public would not be familiar with candidates from states other than their own.
At the Constitutional Convention proponents of the Virginia Plan argued for a bicameral legislature, in which state representatives in both houses would be elected on the basis of population. Proponents of the New Jersey Plan favored maintaining the system of representation under the Articles of Confederation, in which states were represented equally. Delegates eventually resolved this issue with the Connecticut Compromise (also called the Great Compromise), which apportioned state representation according to population in the House of Representatives but then granted each state two votes in the Senate. This compromise also influenced the construction of the electoral college.
Outlined in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, this plan granted each state a number of electoral votes equal to its combined representation in the House and Senate. Each state would choose this number of electors, who would meet in their respective state capitals (a meeting that now occurs in December), cast two votes (at least one of which had to be for an out-of-state candidate), send the votes to the U.S. Congress, and disband. When the votes were opened in Congress (which now occurs in January), the individual receiving the majority of votes would become president and the runner-up would become vice president. If no individual received a majority—a situation many delegates at the Constitutional Convention thought would be the norm—the House of Representatives would choose the president and vice president from among the top five candidates, with each state delegation receiving a single vote. If the House tied on its choice for vice president, senators would make this selection.
This system worked relatively well in the first election of 1789, when, in an event never again repeated, George Washington was unanimously selected as president and John Adams was selected, over some competition, for vice president. However, the system did not work very well as political parties developed and candidates began running as a team. Thus, in the election of 1796, delegates chose Federalist John Adams as president and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson as vice president. The results of the election of 1800 were even murkier. Although Jefferson beat Adams in the election for president, he tied in the electoral college with his party's putative vice president, Aaron Burr. Lame-duck Federalists had the chance to decide the election. It took thirty-six ballots before some Federalists abstained from voting and thus chose Jefferson as president over Burr, but the election had clearly pointed to a problem.
The Twelfth Amendment and After
To remedy this problem, the Twelfth Amendment (1804) mandated that electors cast separate votes for president and vice president, thus allowing those who voted for a party ticket to do so without worrying about a tie. If no one received a majority of the votes for president, the House, again voting by states, would choose from among the top three candidates. If no one received a majority of votes for the vice presidency, the Senate would choose from among the top two candidates. This has happened only once in U.S. history, when in 1837 the Senate chose Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky.
The revised electoral system did not avert controversy in the presidential election of 1824, which featured four main candidates, none of whom received a majority of electoral votes. Andrew Jackson, the well-liked hero of the War of 1812, received the largest number of popular votes. John Quincy Adams, son of the former president, received the next largest number of votes; Georgia's ailing William Crawford came in third; and Kentucky's Henry Clay was fourth. Clay threw his support in the House to Adams, who won the election and later appointed Clay as secretary of state. Jackson charged that a "corrupt bargain" had been struck and beat Adams in the next presidential election.
The Constitution left states free to select presidential electors as they chose, but over time all decided to choose such electors through popular elections. Voters further came to expect that electors would vote for the candidates to whom they were pledged rather than exercising their own individual judgments. Eventually, all states except for Maine and Nebraska adopted a "winner-take-all" system, whereby the individuals who won a majority of votes within a state received all of the state's electoral votes. This generally magnifies the winning margin, giving successful candidates a higher percentage of the electoral vote than of the popular vote. Such a system also advantages the third-party candidacies of individuals with strong regional appeal, like Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968), over those with broader but more widely diffused support, like Millard Fillmore (1856) and Ross Perot (1992).
On occasion, however, the two votes come into conflict. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes beat Democrat Samuel Tilden in the election of 1876 despite receiving fewer popular votes. Ballots were disputed in three key southern states. An electoral commission created by Congress and composed in part of Supreme Court justices, who, like others on the commission, voted a straight party line, gave all the disputed ballots to Hayes.
Similarly, in the election of 1888 Republican Benjamin Harrison won the electoral votes even though Democratic President Grover Cleveland outpolled him in popular votes. Despite other extremely close elections, in which delegations from one or two states sometimes held the balance, such an event was not repeated until the historic election of 2000. Republican George W. Bush eked out a narrow win in the electoral college over Democrat Albert Gore by claiming a similarly narrow win in the state of Florida, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Bush v. Gore (2000) that continuing recounts of votes in that state violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Several constitutional amendments, most notably the Fifteenth (1870), the Nineteenth (1920), and the Twenty-sixth (1971), have increased the number of citizens eligible to vote in presidential elections. By altering the date that new members of Congress are inaugurated, the Twentieth Amendment (1933) ensured that any decisions made by Congress in cases where no candidate receives a majority would be made by newly elected rather than lame-duck members; by moving the presidential inauguration forward, it also gave Congress far less time to resolve disputed elections. The Twenty-third Amendment (1961) further provided that representatives of the District of Columbia, who were previously unrepresented in the electoral college, would have votes equal to that of the smallest states (currently three), raising the total electoral votes to 538, of which 270 constitute a majority. Moreover, the Twenty-fifth Amendment (1967) provided for vice-presidential vacancies by establishing a mechanism whereby a majority vote of both houses of Congress would approve a candidate nominated by the president for such vacancies. To date, the mechanism has been used to appoint two vice presidents, Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, with Ford becoming the first unelected president in U.S. history when President Richard M. Nixon resigned from office in 1974.
Pros and Cons
Supporters generally praise the electoral college for bolstering the two major political parties. By giving them incentives to "carry" their state, the system forces candidates to pay special attention to populous states with strong two-party competition. Advocates of federalism favor the electoral college system, and some argue that it is easier to resolve close elections on a state-by-state basis than on a national one. Other supporters of the electoral college praise the mechanism for generally magnifying popular margins of support, giving winning candidates clearer mandates.
Critics of the electoral college generally focus on the complexity of what they label an antiquated system that sometimes awards the presidency and vice presidency to individuals who did not win the popular vote. Critics are not as united in their solutions, however. The most obvious and popular solution is direct popular election, with a runoff election if no candidate gets 40 percent or more of the vote. The U.S. House of Representatives proposed such an amendment by a vote of 338 to 70 in 1969, but in part because of concerns over the runoff election, the Senate twice killed it.
Other critics of the electoral college have focused on eliminating the occasional "faithless electors," who vote for individuals other than the ones to whom they are pledged by their state's popular vote. Still others have proposed awarding votes by individual congressional districts (with a state's two additional votes going to the winner of the state) or allocating such votes by percentages. Although presumably they would make the possibility less likely, both such systems could still result in an electoral college winner who did not capture a majority of the popular vote.
Berns, Walter, ed. After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 1992.
Best, Judith A. The Choice of the People? Debating the Electoral College. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1996.
Dionne, E. J., and William Kristol, eds. Bush v. Gore: The Court Cases and Commentary. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2001.
Kuroda, Tadahisa. The Origins of the Twelfth Amendment: The Electoral College in the Early Republic, 1787-1804. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Nelson, Michael, ed. Guide to the Presidency. 3d ed., 2 vols. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2002.
Vile, John R. A Companion to the United States Constitution and Its Amendments. 3d ed. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.
Nominated persons, known as electors, from the states and the District of Columbia, who meet every four years in their home state or district and cast ballots to choose the president and vice president of the United States.
In the popular election, the American people actually vote for electors, not for the candidates themselves. The candidate who receives the majority of votes from electors takes office. Although the Constitution allows the electors to vote for any candidate, they usually vote for the candidate of the political party that nominated them. In a limited number of instances, the structure of the Electoral College has led to unusual election results.
The republican basis of the Electoral College stems from the Constitution. When the founders of the United States set out to secure a system of political representation, many among them feared mob rule. Elections based on representative blocks of votes would implement checks within the system. The Framers took into consideration that large numbers of regional candidates could appeal to the interests of various select groups, and thus the populace could be divided widely, and disturbances in the succession of power could ensue. They surmised that Congress should have the power to settle issues that are not resolved in a popular election, and thus they created the Electoral College. As a contributor to this system, alexander hamilton said that it made sure "the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." Rogue politicians, riding any waves of popular sentiments, would need to meet a higher approval before their election. The Electoral College thus ensured an orderly transfer of power, especially in the two-party system that the United States developed.
Electors receive their appointments from a wide and various informal circuit of possible electoral candidates during election times and are nominated in many states according to the guidelines of individual state legislatures. The procedures for nominating electors, whether at party conventions, primary elections, or party organizational meetings, differ throughout the United States. The terms of electors are generally not set by statute, and in some states parties adopt their own criteria for selecting the college's members. However, the Constitution provides that "no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector" (U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 2).
In most states, only the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates—not the names of the electors—appear on election ballots. The party that gains the most popular votes in a state receives one electoral vote for each of its electors. In each state, each party nominates the same number of electors as there are representatives and senators for that state in Congress.
On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December following the popular election, the electors from each state's victorious party cast their ballots. The structure of the Electoral College was established in Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution. Under the original provision, each elector of the college cast two votes for president, and the candidate who received the second-highest number of votes assumed the vice presidency. In 1804, the twelfth amendment modified the original plan to separate the votes cast for the president and the vice president. The electors may choose to vote for another candidate—as West Virginia's electors did in the 1916 race between charles evans hughes and woodrow wilson. However, this occurs only rarely, and even less often does it sway the results of an election. As the electoral system is designed, generally, all of the electoral votes from each state go to the winner of the state's popular vote. Only Maine does not use the winner-takes-all system; it uses the district plan (discussed below).
The electors sign, seal, and certify lists of their ballots. These lists go to Washington, D.C., where the president of the Senate, in the presence of the Senate and the House of Representatives, opens them. The votes are counted. If the electors fail to cast a majority vote, the House of Representatives chooses the U.S. president and vice president by ballot. In 1824, john quincy adams was chosen as president by the House. Although the recipient of the majority of the electoral votes is determined by the college, Congress retains the power of verifying the results and makes official the election of president and vice president.
Although the workings of the Electoral College have not gone unchallenged, significant challenges are infrequent. However, the 2000 presidential election between george w. bush and albert gore jr. inspired calls to reform or eliminate the national Electoral College. The election on November 7, 2000, was one of the closest in U.S. history, and several media organizations erroneously announced Gore as the predicted winner before the election booths had closed. Bush gained significant ground, and by the end of the evening on November 7, it appeared he had won the vote through the Electoral College, even though Gore likely had won the national popular vote.
The Electoral College consisted of 538 electors in 2000, one for each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators, and three for the District of Columbia. According to the U.S. Office of the Federal Register, for the 2000 election, 26 states and the District of Columbia had laws in effect that bound their electors to vote for the same candidate as the majority of the general populace in that elector's state, and 24 did not. In most states, the presidential candidate who won the most popular votes then received all electoral votes from that state, referred to as the "winner-takes-all" feature. Only two states, Maine and Nebraska, allocated their electoral votes proportionally according to the popular vote.
On December 18, 2000 (the second Wednesday in December), the electors met in their respective states and went through the formality of casting their votes for the candidates from the party that elected them. Each state then reported its totals to Congress, utilizing "Certificates of Ascertainment," which list names of the electors and the number of votes received by each, and "Certificates of Votes," which list all persons voted for as president and vice president and the number of electors voting for each person.
The battle over the 2000 election focused on Florida's 25 electoral votes. Questions arose in several Florida counties about the accuracy of the election results from polls in those counties. Soon after the election, officials from the Florida counties began to call for a recount of the ballots. After about a month of litigation and tense national debate, the U.S. Supreme Court, in bush v. gore, 531 U.S. 98, 121 S. Ct. 525, 148 L. Ed. 2d 388 (2000), ordered a halt to the manual recounting. Florida is a "winner-takes-all" state, and the election potentially hinged upon the popular vote in a single county in that state. If a recount were to show that Gore had received more popular votes than Bush in Florida, Gore would have received the 25 votes and would have won the election.
In the months following the 2000 election, many states reconsidered their methods for appointing electors and also looked at instituting changes directed toward more control over electors' votes. One of the areas for potential reform has focused on the differences in the requirements that electors cast their ballots for the same candidate who garnered a majority of the vote in the general populace in that state. A second area is the "winner-takes-all" feature in the majority of states. Although a few states have introduced bills to modify their systems, calls for reform have died down significantly. At the federal level, no electoral reform has progressed through Congress since 1804, when adoption of the Twelfth Amendment required electors to specify separate candidates for president and vice-president. Any reform would likely occur at the state level rather than the federal level.
The 2000 election was certainly not the first to cause controversy. The presidential election of 1876 pitted Republican rutherford b. hayes, a former governor of Ohio, against Democrat samuel j. tilden, a former governor of New York. Reacting against the Reconstruction measures of Republicans in the South, Tilden received strong support from Southern Democrats. When the election returns came in on November 7, 1876, Tilden had clearly received the majority of the popular votes. However, Republicans determined that if they challenged the outcome of the voting in key areas of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, Hayes could win. The Republicans sought victory at all costs and went all-out to claim the electoral votes from those states as their own.
The Republicans waged a publicity campaign through the national press, suppressing the tallies of the popular vote. Republican election committees managed to demonstrate that several key counties contained discrepancies in population figures, voter registration, and ballots cast. Democrats, for obvious reasons, contested the Republicans' tactics. The parties agreed to let an electoral commission, appointed by Congress, determine the winner of the disputed electoral votes. The commission consisted of 15 members from the Supreme Court, the House, and the Senate. In the end, a Republican justice, joseph p. bradley, swayed the outcome of the commission's findings. With less than 48 hours before Tilden's scheduled inauguration, the commission announced that Hayes had won the necessary electoral votes. On March 3, 1877, Hayes was inaugurated.
The results of the election posed issues for proponents and critics alike. Defenders of the electoral system claimed that the problems surrounding the 1876 election had less to do with the college than with political corruption. They maintained that the election could have resulted in a greater debacle if the constitutional structure of the college had not finally settled the contested issues. Critics countered that direct elections would fit the wishes of the people better than did what looked like oligarchic manipulations of the college.
In following years, critics added more ammunition to their attack with the election race between benjamin harrison and grover cleveland in 1888. With an unusual demographic breakdown of ballots, Harrison became president with the majority of electoral votes but with fewer popular votes than Cleveland. Throughout the next century, many wondered how such confused elections could take place.
Proposed alternatives to the current Electoral College system generally fall into three categories. In the first, the candidate with the most popular votes in a state would automatically receive those electoral votes. This system would eliminate independent voting among electors. In the second proposed alternative, a proportionality scheme, the breakdown of popular votes would correlate directly with the breakdown of electoral votes. This plan would abandon the winner-takes-all structure of the college. In the third alternative, the district plan used in Maine, individual congressional districts would be treated as representative of a single electoral vote, and the two electoral votes that each state receives for its two senators would go to the winner of the majority of the districts. To some advocates, there also exists a fourth option: abolishing the Electoral College altogether and letting a direct vote of the people determine who wins the offices of president and vice president.
Despite two controversial elections and occasional calls for change, the electoral system has more or less secured an extended series of peaceable transfers of power in the United States. Absent drastic changes in the political landscape, its role in selecting the U.S. president and vice president seems secure.
Abbott, David W., and James P. Levine. 1991. Wrong Winner. New York: Praeger.
Glennon, Michael J. 1992. When No Majority Rules: The Electoral College and Presidential Succession. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.
Gregg, Gary L., II, ed. 2001. Securing Democracy: Why We Have An Electoral College. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books.
Hardaway, Robert M. 1994. The Electoral College and the Constitution. New York: Praeger.
Kuroda, Tadahisa. 1994. The Origins of the Twelfth Amendment. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Rose, Gary L. 1994. Controversial Issues in Presidential Selection. Albany, N.Y.: State Univ. of New York Press.
Wayne, Stephen J. 1988. The Road to the White House. New York: St. Martin's Press.
electoral college, in U.S. government, the body of electors that chooses the president and vice president. The Constitution, in Article 2, Section 1, provides:
"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress."
However, no senator, representative, or officer of the U.S. government may be an elector. The electors are directed by the Constitution to vote in their respective states, and Congress is authorized to count their votes.
To win, a presidential candidate must have a majority in the electoral college. Before adoption of the Twelfth Amendment (1804), in the event that no candidate had a majority, the House of Representatives (voting by states, with one vote for each state) was to choose the president from among the five candidates highest on the electoral list. Then, "after the choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President" ; in case of a tie the Senate would choose the vice president. The Twelfth Amendment, however, resulting from the confused election of 1800 (see Jefferson, Thomas, and Burr, Aaron) provided that electors vote for president and vice president separately. It also reduced from five to three the number of candidates from among whom the House was to choose—in case no candidate had a majority (only two presidents, Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, have been elected by the House).
Changes in the System
In the early days electors were most often chosen by the state legislatures, but with the growth of democratic sentiment popular election became the rule. After 1832 (and until the Civil War) only in South Carolina did the legislature continue to choose electors. In some of the states at first the people voted for electors by congressional districts, with two being elected at large from the whole state, but with the growth of political parties this plan was largely discarded (only Maine and Nebraska currently use it) in favor of the general-ticket system (the one now prevailing), whereby a party needs only a plurality to carry the whole state. Thus in most states a voter casts a ballot for as many electors as the state is entitled to. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires either that the electors be chosen by popular vote or that the general-ticket system be employed.
Electors must be elected on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, as required by a federal law dating from 1845. As a belated result of the disputed election of 1876 involving Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes, the Electoral Count Act of 1887 placed the responsibility of deciding electoral disputes mainly on the states themselves. Congress now counts the votes (a mere formality) on Jan. 6.
Objections to the System
Only at the very outset did the electoral college function as planned, and there often has been widespread dissatisfaction with the institution. The outstanding objection is that it has given the nation 14 so-called minority presidents, i.e., presidents who had a majority in the electoral college but lacked it in the total national popular vote—James Polk (1844), Zachary Taylor (1848), James Buchanan (1856), Abraham Lincoln (1860, but not 1864), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), James A. Garfield (1880), Grover Cleveland (1884 and 1892), Benjamin Harrison (1888), Woodrow Wilson (1912 and 1916), Harry S. Truman (1948), John F. Kennedy (1960), Richard M. Nixon (1968, but not 1972), Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996), and George W. Bush (2000). Only Hayes, Harrison, and Bush, however, failed to win a plurality of the popular vote.
Since the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, numerous attempts have been made to alter the electoral college and to change the method of presidential election, but none has succeeded. The popular-vote loss and narrow electoral-college victory of George W. Bush in 2000 again led many to question the appropriateness of the institution in a modern representative democracy. Others continued to voice strong support for the electoral college and its enhancement of the importance of less populous states (by basing the number of a states' electors on its U.S. representatives and senators), fearing that otherwise presidential candidates would focus on more populous states and on the issues important to their voters.
See J. H. Parris and W. S. Sayre, Voting for President (1970); L. P. Longley and A. G. Braun, The Politics of Electoral College Reform (1972); J. Best, The Case Against Direct Election of the President (1975); M. Diamond, The Electoral College and the American Idea of Democracy (1977).
The Electoral College was hurriedly improvised by the Framers to placate all factions, provide a mechanism for electing george washington, and leave hard questions for the states to resolve after Washington's retirement. Yet it turned out, unexpectedly, to be the forming and sustaining mold of the American party system.
At conception, the College was partly democratic and responsive to the large states, partly aristocratic and answerable to small states. It was apportioned mostly by population, with a delegate for each congressman and senator, and a state could select its delegates in any way it pleased. The Framers seem to have expected that, after Washington, the delegates—acting deliberatively or as agents of state legislatures—would normally fail to muster a majority for one candidate, and that most elections would be settled in the House of Representatives, with one vote per state.
This happened only in 1824, when the House chose john quincy adams over andrew jackson, the frontrunner in popular and electoral votes. In 1800 the House also elected thomas jefferson, who tied with his running mate aaron burr in the Electoral College. This deadlock led to the adoption of the twelfth amendment, which separated the votes for President and vice-president and gave the College its essential modern written constitutional constraints.
In the same decades, the College acquired two powerful unwritten constraints: party control and unit vote. Party control originated in congressional nominating caucuses in 1796 and shifted to state and national nominating conventions during the 1830s. It ended the notion of unbound, deliberative delegates seeking "continental" leadership. political parties, not delegates, did the deliberation.
The unit vote, chosen by all but one state by 1836, delivered each state's delegation as a unit to the winner of its popular vote. Unit voting already prevailed in the House and in most state elections, but the Electoral College gave it its widest leverage. It is kind to winners, hard on second parties, and almost prohibitive of third parties. It forces competition for shiftable votes, and it rewards inclusive, center-seeking, accommodational parties (and groups) while discouraging narrow, ideological, exclusive ones. Many scholars believe that the American two-party system has its roots in the unit vote and its taproot in the Electoral College.
The College has prompted two complaints, both largely, but not wholly, theoretical. It might elect as President an "unrepresentative" candidate who had won a minority of the popular vote or had been chosen deliberatively by "unfaithful" delegates, or who was chosen by a House manipulated by splinter groups. Or it might favor some voters against others: urban against rural, liberal against conservative, North against South, or large state against small. Yet we have had only two clear minority Presidents (rutherford b. hayes and benjamin harrison), one House-chosen President (John Quincy Adams), no Presidents chosen by the rare, unfaithful delegate, and no constitutional crisis over any of these contretemps.
The College was once thought to favor "pivotal" largestate over small-state voters, and hence urban, liberal over rural, conservative interests, but political change and closer analysis have qualified this impression. Liberals who defended the College in the 1950s fought unsuccessfully to abolish it, in favor of direct election, in the 1960s and 1970s.
Any of the major reform proposals—direct election, proportional representation by state, and election by congressional district—arguably would change outcomes of close elections. john f. kennedy would have lost the 1960 election, with the same votes cast, under the proportional or district systems. But surely the same vote would not have been cast, for any alternative system would have changed voting and campaign strategies. The district system might have given more weight to rural voters, the direct or proportional systems to third parties. Changes in the party system in either case could have been profound.
These complexities may explain why Congress, which considers proposing an amendment to abolish the Electoral College after most close elections, has never actually done so. The Supreme Court has been likewise acquiescent, upholding state delegate allocations against all challenges and refusing, in Delaware v. New York (1966), to hear Delaware's complaint that New York voters had 2.3 times better odds of affecting the outcome of a presidential election.
Ward E. Y. Elliott
Ceaser, James W. 1979 Presidential Selection: Theory and Development. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Elliott, Ward E. Y. 1975 The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court's Role in Voting Rights Disputes, 1845–1969. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Pierce, Neal R. 1968 The People's President: The Electoral College in American History and the Direct-Vote Alternative. New York: Simon & Schuster.
The electoral college is a group of electors who meet every four years to elect the president of the United States. The process is part of the initial design of the U.S. Constitution . It was a compromise made by the country's founding fathers. Some thought the president should be elected by Congress, and others thought the president should be elected by popular vote (citizen votes).
The term “electoral college” was not used until the 1800s, when it became the unofficial name of the group of citizens selected to vote for the president and vice president. It was written into federal law for the first time in 1845 and is in the Constitution in the twenty-first century as “college of electors.”
Although the process for selecting electors varies across the United States, political parties generally nominate electors at their state party conventions or by vote of the party's central committee in each state. Electors might be party leaders, people who have political ties to the presidential candidate, or state-elected officials. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits state officials who have engaged in rebellion against the country or in providing comfort to its enemies from serving as electors.
In the United States, the president is not chosen by nationwide popular vote. The electoral vote totals decide who wins. Electoral votes are assigned on the basis of the popular vote in each state. Each state is allowed a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. senators plus the number of members it has in the House of Representatives. The latter is based on a state's population, meaning that a heavily populated state like California has more electoral votes than a more sparsely populated state such as Rhode Island . Population figures are determined by federal census (official information collected every ten years).
In order to win a presidential election, a candidate must win a majority of 270 electoral votes out of a possible 538. If no candidate wins the majority, the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says the election will be decided by a vote of the members of the House of Representatives. This happened only once in U.S. history; in 1824, the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–1829) after neither he nor Andrew Jackson received a majority of the electoral vote.
Although the candidate who wins the majority of the popular vote usually also wins the electoral college vote, this is not always the case. Most recently, in the 2000 presidential election, Democrat Al Gore (1948–) won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Republican George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–). Bush won the election.
e·lec·tor·al col·lege • n. (also E·lec·tor·al Col·lege) a body of people representing the states of the U.S., who formally cast votes for the election of the president and vice president. ∎ a body of electors chosen or appointed by a larger group.