Electoral College

Table of Contents

  1. Electoral College
  2. Why the Founders chose the Electoral College
  3. How should the President and Vice President be elected?
    1. Options
    2. Arguments for Electoral College, with winner-take-all (EC-WTA)
    3. Arguments for Effective Popular Vote
    4. Graphic: Issue, Options, Arguments
Electoral College

President and Vice President

  • The President and Vice President are elected by electors rather than by direct popular vote. Each elector has one vote.
  • Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution stipulates that
    • a state gets n electors, n being the total number of its Senators and Representatives
    • a state can choose its electors any way it wants
  • The 23rd Amendment (1961) allocates to the District of Columbia the number of electors equal to the number of the least-populated state, meaning three.
  • The total number of electors = 538 = 100 + 435 + 3.
  • To win, a candidate needs a majority of the electoral votes, 270.
  • How electors have been chosen, Wikipedia
    • Initially, state legislatures chose the electors in most states.
    • By 1824, there were six states whose legislatures selected electors.
    • By 1832, only South Carolina selected electors by legislature vote.
    • Since 1864, electors in every state have been chosen based on the popular vote.
  • Except for Maine and Nebraska, the winner of the state’s popular vote gets all its electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska allocate one electoral vote to the winner of each House district and two electoral votes to the statewide winner.

View Undemocratically Elected Presidents

Why the Founders chose the Electoral College
  • Factcheck
    • Most of the nation’s founders were actually rather afraid of democracy, and wanted an extra layer beyond the direct election of the president. As Alexander Hamilton writes in “The Federalist Papers,” the Constitution is designed to ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
  • Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History
    • Many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 initially were convinced that the president should be chosen by majority vote of Congress or the state legislatures. Both these options steadily lost popularity as it became clear the Convention did not want to make the presidency beholden to the legislature or to the states.
    • However, many delegates also found distasteful the most viable alternative— direct election by the populace— due to fears that the public would not be able to make an intelligent choice and hence would simply splinter among various regional favorite-son candidates.
  • Miracle at Philadelphia: the Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787, Catherine Drinker Bowen, 1966 (Page 189)
    • No fewer than sixty ballots were needed before the method of selecting the President was decided; repeatedly, delegates fell upon it as if never before debated.  Five times, the Convention voted in favor of having the President appointed by Congress. Once they voted against that, once for electors chosen by the state legislators, twice against it, and then voted again and again to reconsider the whole business.  Madison remained opposed to popular election, one of his arguments being that people would prefer a citizen of their own state, thereby subjecting the small states to a disadvantage.
  • How Democracies Die by Levitsky and Ziblatt
    • Gatekeepers in a democracy are the institutions responsible for preventing would-be authoritarians from coming into power.
    • In designing the Constitution the founders were concerned with gatekeeping. They wanted an elected president, reflecting the will of the people. But they did not fully trust the people’s ability to judge candidates’ fitness for office.
    • “History will teach us,” Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, that “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” For Hamilton and his colleagues, elections required some kind of built-in screening device.
    • The device they chose was the Electoral College, made up of locally prominent men in each state who would be responsible for choosing the president. Under this arrangement, Hamilton reasoned, “the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” The Electoral College thus became our original gatekeeper.
    • The rise of political parties in the early 1800s changed the way our electoral system worked. (The Constitution does not mention political parties.) Instead of electing local notables as delegates to the Electoral College, as the founders had envisioned, each state began to elect party loyalists. Electors became party agents, which meant that the Electoral College surrendered its gatekeeping authority to the parties.
How should the President and Vice President be elected?
  • Electoral College, with Winner-take-all
    • State Electoral votes are allocated winner-take-all, except Maine and Nebraska currently
  • Effective Popular Vote
    • Electoral College, Allocation by District
      • Similar to those used in Maine and Nebraska, the plan would allocate electoral votes by legislative district rather than at the statewide level
    • Electoral College, Allocation by Popular Vote
      • This plan would assign electoral votes on the basis of the percentage of popular votes a candidate received in the state.
    • Electoral College, National Popular Vote (NPV)
      • State legislatures that enacted the NPV would agree that their state’s electoral votes would be cast for the winner of the national popular vote—even if that person was not the winner of the state’s popular vote.  Language in the bill stipulates that it would not take effect until the NPV was passed by states possessing enough electoral votes to determine the winner of the presidential election. It has been enacted into law in 12 states with 172 electoral votes (CA, CT, DC, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT, WA).
    • Replace Electoral College with Direct Popular Vote
      • This would require adopting a constitutional amendment by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Because many smaller states fear that eliminating the electoral college would reduce their electoral influence, adoption of such an amendment is considered difficult and unlikely.
Arguments for Electoral College, with winner-take-all (EC-WTA)
  • EC-WTA protects the interests of small states and sparsely populated areas, which would be ignored if the president was directly elected.
  • Because of the Electoral College, presidential nominees are inclined to select vice presidential running mates from a region other than their own. 
  • The EC-WTA enhances the status of minority groups. This is so because the voters of even small minorities in a state may make the difference between winning all of that state’s electoral votes or none of that state’s electoral votes. And since ethnic minority groups in the United States happen to concentrate in those states with the most electoral votes, they assume an importance to presidential candidates well out of proportion to their number. The same principle applies to other special interest groups such as labor unions, farmers, environmentalists, and so forth.
  • The EC-WTA contributes to the political stability of the nation by encouraging a two party system. There can be no doubt that the Electoral College has encouraged and helps to maintain a two party system in the United States. This is true simply because it is extremely difficult for a new or minor party to win enough popular votes in enough states to have a chance of winning the presidency.
Arguments for Effective Popular Vote
  • EC-WTA skews toward rural voters.
    • Wyoming, the least popular state, has one electoral vote per 195,369 residents.
      • 586,107 / 3 = 195,369
    • California, the most populous state, has one electoral vote per 711,724 residents.
      • 3,9144,818 / 55 = 711,724
    • So each individual Wyoming vote counts 3.6 times more than each individual California vote.
    • Comparing the 10 least populous states to the 10 most populous, a vote in the former counts 2.5 times more than a vote in the latter.
  • Under EC-WTA, there’s the potential for an undemocratic outcome, with the winner of the popular vote not being elected.
    • In voting for president every vote should count the same. But that doesn’t happen when the winner of the popular vote isn’t elected.
  • Under EC-WTA is biased against third parties and independent candidates
    • For example Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 but no electoral votes.
  • Under EC-WTA, citizens may forgo voting in states where one party is dominant
  • Under EC-WTA, US citizens in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories cannot vote for president, since US territories have no electoral votes.
  • With the Electoral College there is the possibility of a “faithless” elector, who votes for a candidate other than the one to whom he/she is pledged
    • Supreme Court Chiafalo v Washington
      • “The Constitution’s text and the Nation’s history both support allowing a State to enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party’s nominee—and the state voters’ choice—for President.”
      • A state  “can demand that the elector actually live up to his pledge, on pain of penalty.”
Graphic: Issue, Options, Arguments