What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is an indirect popular election where selected individuals, known as electors, vote for the President. The Electoral College is not a college where a person goes to learn, but rather the term “college” is referring to a group of people who are engaged in a common topic. This voting system is what decides who becomes the President and Vice President of the United States. The Electoral College was originally created by the Founding Fathers and is the 12th Amendment in the Constitution. The intended purpose for the Electoral College was to be a compromise between a straight popular vote and Congress electing the President, along with providing leverage to less populated states. When United States citizens vote for their preferred presidential nominee at the general election, they are actually voting for a slate of electors to represent them during the voting of the Electoral College. The electoral process has three parts to it: the selection of electors, the meeting of electors, and the counting of the votes by Congress.
Step One: The Selection of Electors
Electors are selected through a two-part process. The first part is controlled by the political parties and vary by each state. There are 34 states that nominate slates of potential electors at state party conventions. There are ten states that nominate them by a vote of the state party’s central committee. The six remaining states use a few different methods to elect their slate of electors such as: nomination by the Governor, by primary election, and by the party’s presidential nominee. The result is each Presidential nominee having their own slate of potential electors.
The second part takes place on election day. Voters in each state cast their vote for their preferred candidate, which actually means they are voting to select their state’s electors. The winning candidate’s slates of potential electors are now the state’s electors, but this is excluding Maine and Nebraska. Their electors get distributed: winning candidate gets two and the losing candidate gets one. A handful of states have the individual names of the electors on the ballots, but most states do not. Their ballots list the Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees prefaced by “electors for.”
The Constitution does not state who can become an elector, but it does specify who cannot. An elector cannot be a member of the House of Representatives or a Senator, a person holding an office of trust or profit for the United States, or someone who has given aid from a rival country. Aside from those specifications, anyone can be an elector.
Each state is allowed as many electors as it has members of the House of Representatives, plus two more electors for their senators. For example, New Hampshire has two representatives, so New Hampshire gets two electors, and two more electors for its senators. So the total electors New Hampshire will have is four. Washington D.C. has three electors for being the country’s capital. The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1789, provides the District of Columbia with three electors as well. Right now there are currently 538 electors in the Electoral College, compared to the 69 electors in the 1789 Electoral College.
Every ten years the United States conducts it decennial census. During this, the states’ populations are evaluated in a process known as reapportionment. This allows the number of Members of the House of Representatives to fluctuate and mirror changing population rates. This could mean a state losing or gaining electors in order to accurately reflect its House delegation.
Step Two: The Meeting of Electors
On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the meeting of electors takes place. The 12th Amendment specifically states that electors must meet “ in their respective states. . .” as a way to stifle manipulation in the election. This way they could all meet simultaneously, but remain separated. The electors meet in their state’s capital, typically the capitol building or state house, where the vote by ballot to choose the President and Vice President separately (at least one candidate must be from another state).
In order to win the presidential election, a nominee needs to win the absolute majority of electoral votes, which currently is 270 or more. The votes are recorded on a “Certificate of Votes” and are endorsed. Then the results are sent to the sitting Vice President, the Secretary of State of their state, the Archivist of the United States, and the judge of the federal district court of the district which the electors met. From there, the electors disperse. The Electoral College is nonexistent until the next Presidential election.
Step Three: The Counting of Electoral Votes
The Senate and the House of Representatives meet in a joint session of Congress at 1pm on January 6th following the election. The sitting Vice President, acting as President of the Senate, opens each state’s electoral vote certificates. He passes the certificates to four tellers – people who count votes – who announce the result for each state. Then all votes are tallied and the final results are announced publicly by the sitting Vice President. From there, the President-elect and Vice President-elect get sworn in on January 20th, Inauguration Day.
In most elections, the President-elect will win both the popular vote and the electoral vote. There have been a handful of instances where a candidate will win the popular vote, but lose the election. Because the electoral college is the deciding factor of who wins the election, the popular vote is primarily used to tell electors who to vote for during the electoral vote. Electors are not required by the Constitution to vote for what their state’s popular vote result was, but it is rare not to. An elector who votes against to whom they are pledged is known as a faithless elector. Although, there are many states that now require electors to vote who they pledged for or they could face repercussions, such as a fine.
Also, it is possible that no candidate receives the majority of electoral votes. This is called a contingent election. When this happens, the vote goes to the House of Representatives. House members then choose who becomes President from the top three nominees. After that, the Senate then selects the Vice President from the two remaining nominees.
How the Electoral College Began
On September 17th, 1787, The Constitutional Convention was held in Pennsylvania. During this, the discussion on deciding how to elect the President sparked controversy. Some of the Founding Fathers argued that Congress should be the sole selector of the President, while others believed that the President should be elected solely by the popular vote.
In 1787, it was unheard of for a country to elect its leader strictly based off the popular vote, so this was a whole new path the Founding Fathers were traveling down. Many of them had distrust of executive power, which was not surprising considering they recently fled from a tyrannical king in Great Britain a little over a decade prior. They wanted to prevent this from happening again. If Congress picked the President, there would be too much wiggle room for legislative corruption. If the population picked the President, there could be a dangerous amount of power that could backfire and lead the country astray.
The issue was eventually handed over to the Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters. Then, after a long period of debate, a compromise was developed based off the ideas of electoral intermediaries. Article II, Section I, Clause III of the 12th Amendment was developed, which created the Electoral College. It declared that states would appoint electors who would cast the actual vote for the presidency. After the Electoral College was developed, determining how many electors each state received became another issue. The core debate was if slaves, who could not vote at the time, should be counted in a state’s population or not.
During that time, about 40% of people living in the Southern states were black slaves. One of the Founding Fathers, James Madison, knew that if electors were divvied up only according to white residents, the people of the Southern states would not tolerate that. The Southern states wanted slaves to count in order for them to gain more electors. Northern states were against that idea, deeming it would provide unfair leverage in the elections.
The result to appease both the Northern and Southern states was the Three-Fifths Compromise (officially repealed in the 14th Amendment in 1868). This compromise would let black slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person for the reasons of allocating electors and calculating federal taxes. The Three-Fifths Compromise guaranteed that Southern states would ratify the Constitution. It also gave Virginia a quarter (12) of the total electoral votes required to win the presidency (46).
Changes to the Electoral College
For the most part, the original Electoral College system remains in effect today. There have been a few minor changes as Amendments were created, allowing more citizens to participate in the election (allowing African Americans to vote, repealing the Three-Fifths Compromise, allowing women to vote, making the voting age 18).
One method that did change, though, is how the electors choose their President and Vice President. Before, electors would cast two votes for President. Of those two choices, one of them had to be from another state than the one the elector was representing. There was no vote for the Vice President. The winner of the majority of the electoral votes became the President, and the runner-up would become the Vice President. This led to the first serious issue, which developed in the election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican party) and Aaron Burr (Federalist party) each received the same number of electoral votes. The election was sent to the House of Representatives to decide. Eventually it was decided that Jefferson would the President after receiving 36 votes, and Burr would become the Vice President. After this issue had been taken care of, the adoption of the 12th Amendment took place. It declared that electors would cast one vote for President and one for Vice President.
Winning the Popular Vote, but Losing the Election
Just because a nominee wins the popular vote, does not mean they will win the electoral vote, though it is rare not to. There have been five instances where this has happened: 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016). In 1824, this happened for the first time with President Andrew Jackson. In the 1924 election, all of the nominees were Democratic-Republicans. Jackson had received the most electoral votes, but not enough to win the majority, so the election was sent to the House of Representatives. Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House at the time, and hated Andrew Jackson. Clay formed an alliance with electors in Ohio and New England to vote for John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson like they had pledged to. Adams won the 1824 presidency, but the scandal followed him his entire term. This provided Jackson with leverage for the 1828 election, which he won. During Jackson’s Inaugural speech, he recommended abolishing the Electoral College, making it the first time the idea was touched upon.
Abolishing the Electoral College
Abolition of the Electoral College has been a controversial topic that has been debated for years. The main argument is that it provides an unfair influence to rural areas of the United States, while undermining cities. But supporters of the Electoral College says that a national popular vote would provide an unfair influence to cities and undermine the rural areas. Currently it is the Democrats who want to abolish the Electoral College, but the idea has bounced between parties after elections for decades.
Elizabeth Warren recently stated that battleground states – another name for swing state, a state that has equal support for both parties and their votes can go either way – are the only ones nominees focus on, ignoring places like Massachusetts and Mississippi, because of the Electoral College. On the opposite side of the spectrum, President Trump stated that even though he once thought abolishing the Electoral College would be beneficial, he believes now that the Electoral College is the better choice so cities do not end up running the election.
If the United States were to follow through with the idea to abolish the Electoral College, it would be a difficult avenue to tackle. In order to enact this, an amendment must be added to the Constitution. To add an amendment, two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House of Representatives must support it, along with 38 out of the 50 states. The last time this was done was in 1992 when Congress added the 27th Amendment.
There is one possible loophole that could be done in the absence of an amendment: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If a state agrees to and signs this compact, it is stating that it will allocate all of its electoral votes to the nominee that wins the national popular vote. This compact can take effect once the total electoral votes of the states who signed on reaches 270, the same amount needed to win the election. This would make sure that whoever won the popular vote would also win the electoral vote. Currently there are 181 electoral votes for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Reforming or abolishing the Electoral College could be a possibility, but not for the 2020 election at least.