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How The Electoral College Works

An integral facet of American Democracy, the Electoral College is a unique and often controversial system of selecting the President. Here’s a short history that explains it in clear terms.

The system for electing the President of the United States has, since the formation of the Republic and its government, been a controversial and thorny issue. Even during the Constitutional Convention, founder James Wilson of Pennsylvania commented that the issue of selecting the President: “This subject has greatly divided the house, and will also divide people out of doors. It is, in truth, the most difficult of all on which we have had to decide.” on September 4, 1787. 1 Eventually, it was decided that the Electoral College would provide a crucial role in choosing the “chief”, an institution that survives largely unchanged to the present day. In spite of its longevity, it has come under siege from commentators, politicians and voters alike for its many anachronisms, flaws and sometimes undemocratic nature.

The Initial Debates

The Electoral College has barely been modified since its initial presentation to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Briefly explained, the Electoral College is a body of voters within each state that is entrusted to one vote. More broadly, the number of electors to which each state is entitled is based on the number of Senators and seats that state occupies in the House of Representatives. These electors then elect the President of the United States2. The winner of the popular vote in that particular state takes all of the Electoral College votes on offer. For example, if a presidential candidate wins the popular vote in California which currently holds 55 Electoral College votes, he or she will receive 55 Electoral College votes – the winner takes “all”. A candidate at present needs 270 or more votes to win the presidency. Therefore the president is voted for indirectly rather than directly by the electorate.3 It is illustrated in detail by a Supreme Court decision in 1890 that further defined the role of the Electors in the College:

“The sole function of the presidential electors is to cast, certify and transmit the vote of the State for President and Vice President of the nation…their votes will be counted in Congress; has provided for the filling by each State, in such a manner as its legislature may provide…has regulated the manner of certifying and transmitting their votes to the seat of the national government.”

The Electoral College was a initially compromise; ensuring that densely populated states would not dominate the outcome of the vote and make certain (near) equal representation for smaller states, a major concern at the time which revolved around preserving federalism. Advanced by James Wilson and approved by prominent founders such as James Madison and Gouverneur Morris, the plan originally deigned electors to be chosen by state districts or by Congress itself, but eventually yielded to a program of state legislatures appointing a number of electors based on the amount of Senate and House of Representatives seats. This act is enshrined in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. It did not provide however that the President and Vice President that were to be elected be of the same party, but was corrected after the passing of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution in 1804 (it was also modified again in 1961 with the ratification of the Twenty-third Amendment.). There are anomalies and inconsistencies in this system however. In Maine and Nebraska, the Electoral College votes are not strictly allocated by the “winner takes all” system. Instead, they can be split between at-large electors and minor electors. These minor electors vote for the candidate who has a majority in each of the congressional districts and more closely resembles the distribution of the popular vote.8 If the Electoral College cannot produce a majority, the House determines the winner of the President by a “one vote per state bloc” ballot with the Senate voting in the Vice President similarly. Although fundamentally complex and rigidly defined by the Constitution and through judiciary alike, the Electoral College is consistently derided for its flaws and inherent undemocratic nature.

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