Discover how the electoral college works, read about its history, and learn about some of the electoral system's problems in this article from Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge.
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The citizens of the United States do not elect their president directly. When Americans cast their vote for a presidential candidate, they are really voting for an elector — a delegate pledged to vote for that same candidate. There are 538 such electors chosen in every presidential election. As a group they are known as the electoral college.
How the Electoral College Works
Each state has as many electors as it has members in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives combined. The electoral college thus includes 535 electors from the states, one for each of the 435 members of the House plus one for each of the 100 senators. Another three electors represent the District of Columbia, for a total of 538.
According to the U.S. Constitution, state legislators decide how electors will be chosen in their states. First, each political party in a state nominates a slate (list) of electors. These electors are usually pledged to support the party's nominee for president and vice president. In some states, electors are legally required to vote for their candidate.
Presidential elections take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years. On that day voters throughout the nation go to the polls to choose the electors in their states. In many states the names of the electors do not even appear on the ballot. The voters see only the names of the candidates for president and vice president. Nevertheless, voters who favor the Republican (or Democratic) candidate for president actually vote for the Republican (or Democratic) electors in their state. This voting of the people is called the popular vote.
In 48 of the 50 states, the candidate who receives the most popular votes wins all that state's electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, the state's electoral votes can be divided among the candidates. To be elected president, a candidate needs a majority of all the electoral votes in the country.
In most presidential elections, the winner is known by the morning following election day. However, election results do not become official until weeks afterward. The winning electors meet in their state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December. There they vote for president and vice president. They send the sealed results to Washington. On January 6, the results are read in the presence of the entire Congress. The winner becomes official. Then, on January 20, the president-elect takes the oath of office as president of the United States.
Problems of the Electoral System
Many people dislike the electoral college system. They think it is wrong for the winning party in a state to get all the electoral votes and the losing party none. The victor may win several large states by just a few popular votes. But even this small margin wins all the state's electoral votes. The opponent, on the other hand, may win large popular majorities in several smaller states with few electoral votes. Thus a person may lose the nationwide popular vote and still be elected president. This happened in the 2000 presidential race. Al Gore received half a million more popular votes than George W. Bush. But Gore lost the electoral college by a vote of 266 to 271.
Another criticism of the electoral college is that it negatively affects the campaign process. The votes that really matter are the electoral college votes. They are counted by state. Thus candidates often pay a great deal of attention to some states and no attention to other states. Suppose, for example, a certain state is considered "safe," or sure to vote for one candidate. Neither candidate will do much campaigning there. Consequently, fewer voters may go to the polls in those states. Despite complaints, it would take an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to change the electoral college system. That is considered very unlikely to happen.
The founders who drew up the Constitution in 1787 were not willing to allow ordinary citizens to vote for their president directly. Among other things, the founders were afraid that the people would not be well informed enough to choose wisely. They feared people would simply back candidates they knew from their own state. Rather, the founders believed that a selected group of electors should pick the president.
The founders thought that electors should be allowed to vote as they pleased. But during John Adams' term as president (1797–1801), political parties became much stronger than they had been before. The parties nominated candidates for president and vice president and then picked electors to vote for them. Electors were expected to vote for their party's choice. Thus in most cases the voting procedure merely became a formality. The person who received the most votes from the electors would become president. The one with the next highest number of votes would be vice president. That system lasted until 1800. In that year Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson got exactly the same number of electoral votes. The system had to be changed. The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1804) clarified the electoral college procedure. It provided that each elector would vote for one person for president and another for vice president.
Although today the electoral system is important, individual electors are not. But they can become significant if they go back on their pledges. For example, they may fail to vote for candidates they promised to vote for in order to press political points. They may vote for another candidate or someone who is not even running. Scholars call this the "faithless elector" problem. Such an incident happened in 2000. In that year an elector from Washington, D.C., who was pledged to Al Gore, abstained from voting to protest the District's lack of representation in Congress.
David E. Weingast
Author, We Elect a President
Reviewed by Kay J. Maxwell, President
League of Women Voters of the United States
How to cite this article:
MLA (Modern Language Association) style:
Weingast, David E. "Electoral College." Reviewed by Kay J. Maxwell. The New Book of Knowledge®. 2007. Grolier Online. 25 July 2007 .
Chicago Manual of Style:
Weingast, David E. "Electoral College." Reviewed by Kay J. Maxwell. The New Book of Knowledge®. Grolier Online (accessed July 25, 2007).
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Weingast, D. E. (2007). Electoral College. (K. J. Maxwell, Rev.). The New Book of Knowledge®. Retrieved July 25, 2007, from Grolier Online
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