Electoral College, the constitutional system for the election of the president and vice president of the United States. It is the collective name for a group of electors, nominated by political parties within the states and popularly elected, who meet to vote for those two offices.
Each party within a state selects a slate of electors numerically equal to the state's congressional delegation—representatives plus senators. The electors normally pledge to vote for the nominees of their party, but they are not constitutionally required to do so. When the American people vote for president and vice president, they are actually voting for slates of electors pledged to their candidates. Because the electors usually are chosen at large, the electoral vote of each state is cast as a unit, and the victorious presidential and vice presidential nominees in each state win the state's entire electoral vote. The candidates receiving a majority of the total electoral vote in the United States are elected.
The electoral college system was established in Article II, section 1, of the U.S. Constitution and has been modified mainly by the 12th Amendment. Numerous plans have been proposed for eliminating or altering the electoral college, including direct election of the president and vice president by popular vote.
How the College Operates. The Constitution leaves the selection of electors to the state legislatures, stipulating only that their number equal that of the congressional delegation and that officers of the federal government are not eligible. Candidates for elector usually are nominated by party conventions, in primary elections, or by party organizations.
The electors, popularly elected on election day, meet in their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December in presidential election years. They vote by ballot separately for president and vice president. To discourage having a president and vice president from the same state, at least one of the candidates for whom they vote must not be a resident of the electors' own state. Certified lists of votes cast for the two offices are transmitted to the president of the U.S. Senate—since 1950 through the General Services Administration. On the following January 6 the president of the Senate, presiding at a joint session of Congress, opens the certificates, and the votes are counted by tellers. The election is decided by a majority of the total electoral college vote.
In the absence of a majority of electoral votes for president, the House of Representatives proceeds quickly to elect by ballot from the three candidates standing highest in electoral votes. Each state has only one vote, cast as a majority of its representatives determines, and a majority of all the states is necessary for election. For vice president, if a majority is lacking in the electoral college, the Senate elects from the two highest candidates. A majority vote is necessary for election.
Historical Development. The framers of the Constitution regarded the electoral college as part of a procedure for electing the president by the people, at least indirectly. It seemed probable to the framers that the system of electors voting by ballot in the states would ordinarily serve also as a nominating device, with the final election frequently left to the House.
Before the adoption of the 12th Amendment in 1804, the electors voted for two persons without distinguishing between a vote for president and vice president. The highest number of votes, if a majority, elected a president. If two persons were tied for first place, the House, voting by states, chose between them. If there was no majority, the House was required to choose among the five highest candidates. After the choice of a president, the highest remaining electoral vote determined the vice president, the Senate being authorized to make a selection in case of a tie.
This unworkable system was altered by the 12th Amendment because of defects demonstrated in the election held in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who were nominees of the Democratic-Republican party, each received a majority, with exactly the same electoral vote (73). Despite Jefferson's designation as the party's presidential candidate, it was not until the 36th ballot in the House that Federalist party opposition was overcome and Jefferson was chosen over Burr.
In the early years of the electoral college system, several state legislatures chose electors without a popular vote. After 1828 only South Carolina continued this practice, abandoning it after the Civil War. Electors were chosen by the legislature in Florida in 1868 and in Colorado in 1876.
Before 1828 a number of states permitted voter choice of electors by districts. Michigan utilized this method for the election of 1892. Maine, since 1969, and Nebraska, since 1988, have reintroduced variations of this system, but most states now give all their electoral votes to the candidate with a plurality of the popular vote.
When the names of electors are chosen individually by the voters, the electoral vote of the state may be split, as in 1916, when West Virginia gave seven votes to Charles Evans Hughes and one to Woodrow Wilson. Many states, however, utilize the presidential short ballot, so that the voter makes only one choice for all electors pledged to a given presidential candidate.
The 23d Amendment, adopted in 1961, which enfranchised residents of the District of Columbia for presidential elections, provided that the District choose electors equal to the number it would be entitled to if it were a state but not more than the least populous state.
Weaknesses of the System. In most states the electoral college system gives all of a state's electoral votes to the winner in that state, no matter how slim the margin. Thus it has happened that candidates have been elected even though they received fewer popular votes than did their opponents. Rutherford B. Hayes (in 1876), Benjamin Harrison (in 1888), and George W. Bush (in 2000) were elected in this manner. In the case of Hayes, a special electoral commission was called in 1877 to decide the contested returns. John Quincy Adams also received fewer popular votes than did his opponent, Andrew Jackson, in the election of 1824, but his election was decided by the House of Representatives because Jackson failed to win a majority of electoral college votes. On several occasions the popular vote pluralities of the electoral college victors have been razor thin or even questionable. One instance was the election of John F. Kennedy over Richard M. Nixon in 1960, although Nixon conceded.
The feature of the electoral college most prone to attack is the requirement that the election go into the House of Representatives to determine the president and go into the Senate to determine the vice president if the electoral college is unable to reach a majority. There might be a paralyzing delay in determining the victors, and the president-elect and vice president-elect could be members of opposing political parties.
The House was called on to elect a president in the cases of Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, and the Senate chose Richard M. Johnson as vice president after the election of 1836. The possibility of this reoccurring remains very much alive. Should a third-party candidate carry enough states to prevent an electoral vote majority for a candidate, the House, voting by state delegation, might be unable to reach an absolute majority.
Pledged electors generally have been regarded as legally free to cast their votes as they choose, and there have been cases of defection from pledged positions. No such deviation has had a clear effect on an election result, but the possibility raises an additional objection to the electoral college. In 1820 a New Hampshire elector voted for John Quincy Adams instead of James Monroe; in 1956 an Alabama elector voted for a circuit judge instead of Adlai E. Stevenson; in 1960 an Oklahoma elector pledged to Richard Nixon voted instead for Harry F. Byrd; in 1968 a North Carolina elector defected from Nixon to George C. Wallace; and in 1988 a West Virginia elector voted for Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr., instead of Michael S. Dukakis.
Proposed Changes. Major proposals debated for change in the electoral college have been: (1) substitution of direct popular vote for the president; (2) choice of electors by districts; (3) elimination of electors as individuals, but retention of the electoral college principle, perhaps with an arrangement to distribute a state's votes in proportion to voter support of candidates. Many fear that any change would threaten the two-party system.
The appeal of a popular election is checked by the practical difficulty of achieving it by constitutional amendment. Members of Congress and state legislators from small states usually favor retention of the electoral college, reasoning that the college, which includes two votes for each state's two senators, tends to increase the relative weight of the small states.
The district proposal is based on recognition of geographical divisions within a state. It would also reduce the political dominance of the large industrial states by splitting their electoral votes between the candidates. This proposal has been objected to, however, as a crude substitute for more accurate apportionment.
Distribution of electoral votes in proportion to voter support of candidates has occasioned the sharpest controversy. It would eliminate many present inequities of the all-or-none allocation of at-large electoral votes, but it might weaken the two-party system. Candidates of minor parties having no chance to win a state's votes under the all-or-nothing principle might enter the race to win fractions of the apportioned vote.
Franklin L. Burdette
Director, Bureau of Governmental Research, University of Maryland
Best, Judith A., The Choice of the People? Debating the Electoral College (Rowman & Littlefield 1996).
Hardaway, Robert M., The Electoral College and the Constitution: The Case for Preserving Federalism (Praeger 1994).
Kuroda, Tadahisa, The Origins of the Twelfth Amendment: The Electoral College in the Early Republic, 1787–1804 (Greenwood Press 1994).
Peirce, Neal R., and Lawrence D. Longley, The People's President: The Electoral College in American History and the Direct Vote Alternative, rev. ed. (Yale Univ. Press 1981).
|State||Electoral College Votes|
|District of Columbia||3|
|Total Electoral College Votes||538|