by Jean Tanis
The need for the Electoral College in our electoral process has long been debated, particularly after heated political contests as we saw in 2016. But despite wide discussion, this complicated system still remains murky to many Americans. What exactly is it? How was it developed? And why do some insist it stay while others advocate for its elimination? As part of our Presidency Project, we are exploring this important, yet contentious, tradition.
What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is the constitutional system through which the United States elects its president. Although the Constitution itself does not use the term “Electoral College,” it does mandate that each state select “electors” who in turn elect the president. In this usage, “college” refers to a group of people that share a common purpose or responsibility. The term “Electoral College” emerged in the early 1800s as a name for the group of citizens selected by their respective states to cast votes for president and vice president. This unique electoral system developed in response to various political concerns, one of the most significant of which was the balance of power between states in the North and South
How the Electoral College Functions Today
Before we can examine its origins, it is important to understand how the electoral process functions today, as it has evolved to be rather different from its initial design. Here’s how it works these days:
Step One: Parties nominate the citizens who will become electors in the Electoral College Political parties in each state nominate a slate of citizens (elector-candidates) who pledge to cast their vote for that party’s preferred presidential and vice presidential candidates.
Step Two: Americans cast their ballots on Election Day—but not for who you think
Eligible U.S. citizens vote for president and vice president on political party tickets in statewide ballots on Election Day in November. When voters cast their ballot for president, it appears as if they are voting directly for the candidate of their choice. But they are in fact voting for an elector or slate of electors who have pledged to vote for that candidate. The presidential candidate who receives the most votes in the statewide ballot—the popular vote—typically receives the totality of the state’s electoral votes, with a couple of exceptions.
For example, New York has 29 electoral votes, and therefore 29 electors, in the Electoral College. If Candidate A won 51 percent of the state’s popular vote, and Candidate B won 49 percent of the state’s popular vote, then Candidate A would win all 29 electoral votes. Only Maine and Nebraska adhere to a proportional electoral system in which electoral votes may be split among congressional districts. If New York functioned this way, that would mean Candidate A could win 15 electoral votes, and Candidate B could win 14 electoral votes, instead of Candidate A winning all 29.
The number of electoral votes in a state is determined by adding the number of members of the House of Representatives in that state to the number of senators in that state, which is always two. (In New York, we are represented by 27 members of the House and two senators, so that’s how we have 29 electoral votes.) Added together, there are 538 total electoral votes throughout the country. A candidate who wins a simple majority of 270 out of 538 electoral votes on Election Day becomes the projected presidential winner. The winner cannot be technically determined until the full Electoral College process has finished. The electors must still gather and cast their votes, and Congress must still conduct an official tally.
Step Three: Members of the Electoral College cast their ballots the following month
The electors chosen on Election Day gather weeks later in their respective states to cast their votes for president and vice president. Each elector represents one electoral vote. So, for example, in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the most votes in the New York statewide ballot on the Democratic ticket. As such, all 29 elector-candidates that had previously been nominated by the New York State Democratic Party proceeded to cast their votes at the meeting of the electors for Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine.
Although electors pledge themselves to candidates, they are under no constitutional duty to honor that pledge. Electors who break their promise to support a specific candidate are known as “faithless electors.” Some states have enacted laws to discourage or invalidate broken pledges. But it is very unusual for electors to refuse to honor their pledge, and faithless electors have never altered the outcome of an election.
How the Electoral College Developed
The Electoral College has evolved significantly since its inception in 1787. The process described above would be unrecognizable to the nation’s founders, who imagined it as an indirect and deliberative system with considerably narrower public participation.
First, the framers of the Constitution did not anticipate the development of political parties. In the first four U.S. elections, electors cast two votes each for president. The candidate with the most electoral votes (and at least a simple majority) would become president, and the second place candidate would become vice president. This system was quickly found to be incompatible with the newly emerging political party system.
In the election of 1796, the president and vice president were elected from opposing political factions, greatly complicating the governing process. In 1800, the Electoral College produced a tie for president between Thomas Jefferson and his chosen running mate, Aaron Burr, as electors had no way of differentiating their votes for president and vice president. Congressional supporters of Burr tried to instate him as president instead, generating much intrigue until Jefferson was finally chosen as president three weeks later. In response to this new political reality, the Constitution was amended in 1804. Electors are now required by the 12th Amendment to cast one vote for president and one vote for vice president.
The development of political parties also significantly changed the role of electors within the electoral system. Instead of being independent, reasoned decision makers as the framers intended, the electors increasingly became subjects of political parties, pledging their votes far ahead of their election.
Second, the framers left the selection of electors to state legislatures. In the earliest elections, state legislatures often chose the electors without any direct input from the voting public. Only after the Civil War did all states institute direct voting for electors on their own accord. What we now take for granted—our ability as eligible U.S. citizens to vote for president—is far from a constitutional right.
While the Electoral College has evolved in accordance with social and political changes in the past, the last major changes to the system occurred in the 19th century. Since then, Americans’ perception of voting equality and fairness has changed. Additionally, the healthy functioning of the Electoral College has been called into question by two recent elections in which the winner lost the popular vote. This has led to a nationwide discussion of the College’s place within our government structure. Is it time for our electoral system to evolve again?
Arguments for and against the Electoral College
Critics calling for the abolishment of the Electoral College argue that it is an anachronistic institution that was “not the result of a coherent design based on clear political principles but, rather, a complex compromise that reflected the interests of different states and the search for consensus.”[i] Among those important interests were slave states.
During the drafting of the Constitution, Virginian James Madison opposed the idea of direct national elections for president on the grounds that it would be unacceptable to the South. Southerners feared that the North—with its higher population of eligible white male voters and fewer slaves—would hold too much power under a direct voting system and would one day weaken or abolish slavery. To accommodate these fears, Madison proposed a version of the Electoral College, which would lodge voting power in state-selected electors rather than individual voters. Importantly, Madison’s proposed system allowed states to partially count their slave population within their overall voting population, giving them a larger share of electoral votes than they otherwise would have had. While various proportions were discussed, Congress eventually settled on the 3/5 number that had already been used as a compromise for congressional representation.
Opponents further argue that the Electoral College has antidemocratic tendencies that are incompatible with our current views on voting equality. First, the popular vote winner may lose the Electoral College, confounding many Americans’ notion of fairness and potentially delegitimizing presidential power. Second, the system discourages suffrage since electoral votes are based on overall population, not total number of eligible voters. If states retain the same electoral power no matter how many people actually vote, they have no incentive to increase suffrage, and may in fact find political reasons for its suppression. Third, the electoral system goes against the principle articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims (1964) that all votes should be equal. Due to the requirement of a minimum of three electoral votes per state, voters from the least populated states have unusually high voting power as compared to voters from more populous ones. For example, one electoral vote in New York represents an average of 519,075 persons, while one electoral vote in Wyoming represents an average of 142,741 persons. In practice, the less populous states tend to be heavily rural, giving rural voters more say than urban voters overall.
Proponents of the current Electoral College claim it is “one of the political safeguards of federalism…that assures that the states count as distinct political entities.”[ii] The system forces candidates to have trans-regional appeal, as there is no region that is worth a combined 270 electoral points. Changing to a direct national vote system would encourage candidates to appeal to national interests and forego the local. Large special interest groups would play an even larger role in elections. To lose the Electoral College would be to lose “the distinct texture of our American polity.”[iii]
According to the Library of Congress, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress throughout the past two centuries to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. Polls show that a vast majority of Americans are in favor of abolishment. Despite this popular support, abolishing the Electoral College would take a constitutional amendment—requiring the acceptance of two thirds of Congress and the ratification of three fourths of state legislatures. Given today’s partisan political climate, this avenue of reform seems untenable. In an effort to circumvent this issue, advocates of reform have initiated the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), a proposed agreement between the states and D.C. to allocate their electors to whichever candidate wins the popular vote, even if that candidate loses in their state. States must only abide by the NPVIC if enough states have joined to guarantee the popular vote winner 270 electoral votes. To date, ten states plus D.C. have joined the NPVIC.
[i] George C. Edwards III, “There’s No Reason for Keeping the Electoral College,” Nov. 15, 2016, YubaNet
[ii] Charles Fried, “How to Make the President Talk to the Local Pol,” The New York Times, November 11, 2000.