Electoral College

The electoral college is a group of electors, outlined and defined in the United States Constitution, established for the purpose of electing the president and vice-president. Read the overview below to gain an understanding of the process and explore the previews of opinion articles that highlight diverging views on this voting system.

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Electoral College Topic Overview

"Electoral College." Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2019. 

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The United States Electoral College is a deliberative body through which the US president is elected to office. The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors; each state is allotted a set number of electors equivalent to its two senators plus its number of congressional house representatives. For example, Alabama, which has two senators and seven representatives, is allotted nine electors. The state with the most electors is California, which has fifty-five. The District of Columbia is allotted three electors. Though voters may be unaware of the process, when they cast their ballots during the general election in November their votes are actually used to determine the electors from their state. 

During the general election, the winner of the popular vote—the winner based on the number of actual votes cast by the general population—is determined in each state. In practice, electors vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state, therefore all of a state's electoral votes tend to go to the same candidate. However, several states do not require this. A federal court ruling in August 2019 ruled that members of the Electoral College are not mandated to vote for the winner of their state's popular vote. However, Colorado officials petitioned the US Supreme Court to review the case shortly after the 2019 decision. A candidate must receive at least 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December of the election year, the electors assemble in their respective states to cast their ballots and elect the president. 


History and Intent of the Electoral College 

The Electoral College exists because of a compromise reached during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. During the convention, delegates considered several different ways of electing the president but could not agree. The issue was sent to the Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters, which was developed to work on difficult issues facing the Convention. The committee, which included James Madison, proposed the system of electors. Originally, the electors would each cast two votes. The candidate with the greatest number of votes would become the president. The candidate who came in second would become the vice president. Electors were not permitted to select two candidates from their own state. The compromise was accepted because it solved three problems. First, it created a buffer between state and federal governments. Second, it protected the election from undue influence from the more populated states. Third, it gave citizens some input into the election of the president while also addressing concerns held by several Founders, including Alexander Hamilton, that common voters could be easily manipulated into electing unqualified candidates. Some of the delegates feared that citizens would not have confidence in a president if they were too far removed from the process of electing him. To help allay fears that the federal government had too much control over presidential elections, each state decided independently how to choose its electors. 

After the election of 1800, the design of the Electoral College was reevaluated and revised. In that election, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received an equal number of electoral votes. The election went to the House of Representatives after the Senate established that there was a tie. The House, however, had to vote thirty-six times before Jefferson received the majority of votes and was named president. The rise of political parties, which the Electoral College's original designers had not anticipated, significantly narrowed the field of candidates and made it more likely that there would be a tie in electoral votes. 

To remedy this, in 1804 Congress passed the Twelfth Amendment, which established that each elector would cast a single vote for president and a second single vote for vice president. If no candidate received a majority of the votes, the House of Representatives would choose from the top three candidates. The Senate would choose the vice president from the top two candidates in the case of a tie. Since the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, only one other constitutional revision has been made to the electoral process. In 1961 the Twenty-Third Amendment granted the District of Columbia three electoral votes. No further attempts to reform, amend, or abolish the Electoral College system have yet been successful. 


The Electoral College in the Twenty-First Century 

Since 1836 most states have assigned electors based on the results of the states' respective general elections. Thus, electors typically vote for the winner of the popular vote. However, there have been instances in which the assignment of electors has created challenges in contested elections. For example, in 2000 a dispute over the results of the popular vote in Florida continued for a month after the general election and ultimately reached the US Supreme Court. The Court's ruling halted an ongoing recount in the state and allowed Florida's secretary of state to certify the existing election results, which awarded 25 electoral votes to Republican George W. Bush. Florida's votes pushed Bush's total electoral votes to 271, enough to win the presidency. Democratic candidate Al Gore won the national popular vote by 543,895 but lost the electoral vote by just five electors because he lost the popular vote in Florida by an estimated 537 votes—less than 0.01 percent. 

All states except for Maine and Nebraska follow a winner-takes-all approach in which the candidate with the most votes receives all the state's electoral votes. The winner-takes-all approach has led to the phenomenon of swing states. Swing states are states in which the popular vote is determined by a very narrow margin. In 2016 swing states were key to Republican Donald Trump's unexpected victory; he gained 304 Electoral College votes but lost the national popular vote by 2.9 million. Trump won Michigan by less than 1 percentage point to gain 16 electoral votes; Wisconsin by 1 percent to gain 10 electoral votes; and Pennsylvania by 1.2 percent to gain 20 electoral votes. According to an analysis published in U.S. News & World Report, Trump's success was due largely to his ability to win in a number of previously Democratic states by very small margins. While former US president Barack Obama had won just two states by 2 percent or less in 2012, Trump won four states by 2 percent or less in 2016. 


Weaknesses of the Electoral College 

Those who oppose the Electoral College system point to swing states as an example of why the process does not truly represent the will of the voters. Many political analysts, politicians, and voters have asserted that candidates often focus their time, money, and effort on only a few swing states. Meanwhile, they say, the candidates pay little attention to those states that have a history of always supporting the Democratic or Republican candidate, thus ignoring the individual interests of many voters. According to a March 2019 Politico/Morning Consult poll, 50 percent of voters surveyed indicated a preference for the national popular vote over the Electoral College, while 34 percent preferred the Electoral College. 

Other critics question whether the Electoral College results are truly representative of the people. There have been five elections in US history in which candidates who won the popular vote did not win the presidency because they failed to gain a majority of electoral votes: in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. While Gore won the popular vote by about half a million in 2000, Hillary Clinton won it by nearly 3 million in 2016. Trump lost the popular vote by a bigger margin than any other US president since the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and calls to abolish or reform the Electoral College amplified. 

Following the 2000 presidential election, the National Popular Vote (NPV) Interstate Compact initiative emerged as a potential solution, and it has regained popularity in the wake of the 2016 election. States that adopt the initiative agree to apportion their Electoral College votes to the national popular vote winner rather than their state's popular vote winner, in the event that they are different. The plan requires participation of enough states to reach the threshold of 270 electors before it can go into effect. As of October 2019, fifteen states and the District of Columbia, representing a total of 196 Electoral College votes, have joined the compact. Five of the fifteen participating states have signed on just since 2018. An additional seven states representing a total of 70 electoral votes filed NPV legislation to consider in their 2019 or 2020 legislative sessions. A 2019 Gallup poll, however, suggests that the public prefers a different approach: 55 percent of US adults polled supported amending the Constitution to base the winner on the national popular vote, while just 45 percent supported the NPV model. 


Strengths of the Electoral College 

When the Electoral College was created, James Madison hoped it would avoid the silencing of minority opinions by an overly influential majority. Madison worried that factions might arise within the country that would harm the nation as a whole. He believed that these factions could be kept in check by making the election of the president representative rather than direct. The 2019 federal appeals court ruling reflects Madison's reasoning, as it asserts the right of individual electors to cast their votes as they wish even if it is not consistent with the popular vote in their state. An elector who votes for someone other than the candidate who won their state's popular vote is known as a faithless elector. 

For those who support the Electoral College, the system is crucial to maintaining American federalism and the rights of individual states. Defenders argue that the Electoral College system stabilizes the nation, gives voice to every state, and prevents big city populations from dominating an election. Some supporters also caution that a national popular vote could lead to multiple "micro-candidates" that attract support from disparate populations and lead to the election of a president who represents the concerns of a small percentage of Americans. The Electoral College, according to those who support its continued use, preserves the founders' goal to "secure the blessings of liberty" for all Americans by giving voice to every state. 

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Concerns among Americans Regarding the US Electoral College, April 2019

Electoral College Fast Facts 1




Concerns about the Electoral College, by Political Affiliation


Source: "Americans Split on Proposals for Popular Vote." Gallup, Mar 14, 2019. Tribune Content Agency Graphics. https://news.gallup.com/poll/257594/americans-split-proposals-popular-vote.aspx (accessed November 4, 2019).

COPYRIGHT 2020 Gale, a Cengage Company.

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