Why does the U.S. have an Electoral College?

U.S. V.P. Dick Cheney (R) hands the Electoral College ballot certificate from Ohio to Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA) during the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 8, 2009 which certified Barack Obama as the winner of the 2008 presidential election.
U.S. V.P. Dick Cheney (R) hands the Electoral College ballot certificate from Ohio to Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA) during the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 8, 2009 which certified Barack Obama as the winner of the 2008 presidential election.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When you hear the term "Electoral College" bandied about, what comes to mind? An institute of higher learning? A behind-the-scenes vote-tallying process?

Actually, both these ideas are off the mark. But your confusion isn't. Many Americans don't really understand how an Electoral College works -- or why we have one in the first place.

The Electoral College exists to elect the president and vice president of the United States. And therein lies the rub. What about your vote -- and the vote of millions of other Americans -- for a presidential candidate? Turns out, you're not actually voting for the next leader of the free world. You're casting a ballot for members of the Electoral College whose names probably don't appear on the ballot at all.

The idea for an Electoral College originated in 1787, the same year the Constitution was written. In Article II, section 1 of the Constitution, it spells out the Electoral College framework, "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector."

In short, the legislature selected electors, who in turn elected a president and vice president. So where did that leave the American people? In the early days of the Electoral College, they didn't seem to have much of a voice. Fortunately, today, members of the Electoral College are no longer appointed by the legislature, but are voted on by the American public as they cast their votes for presidential candidates. However, so little is known about Electoral College nominees -- or the Electoral College process in general -- that on Election Day, most Americans believe they are casting their votes for president. In reality, they're voting for unnamed electors who will cast the deciding votes in the presidential race [source: History].

How the Electoral College Impacts Elections

Not long after the Electoral College made its debut in the late 18th century, it began to evolve. In 1804, the 12th amendment was put into place which, among other things, allowed electors to vote once for a presidential candidate and once for a vice presidential candidate. The amendment replaced the previous election process, by which electors voted only for two presidential candidates and the loser became vice president [source: History].

Each state receives a specific number of electors based on its Senate membership and population. Each state has two members of Senate and one or more members of the House of Representatives, depending on the number of people who live in its state. For example, a state with two Senators and six Representatives would receive eight electoral votes.

However, the process by which electors are chosen varies from state to state. Electors are chosen by several means, ranging from governor nominations to political party recommendations, and the winners are rarely publicized. They are usually active party members nominated by their state party committees.

On Election Day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, U.S. citizens vote for a joint presidential ticket that includes the political party nominees for president and vice president. In actuality, they are voting for the Electoral College nominees affiliated with that particular political ticket.

The winning electors then follow another mandate spelled out in the 12th Amendment, and in December meet in the states from which they originate to cast their ballots for president and vice president. The electors will generally vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in the state. So, if Candidate A gets 70 percent of the popular vote and Candidate B gets 30 percent, 100 percent of the electors in that state will vote for candidate A. (Two states use a system where the state is divided into districts and electors vote for the winner of the popular vote in their district). But there are exceptions, as we'll see on the next page.

After the electors vote, the results are distributed through various channels, including the federal district court judges, the United States Archivist and the sitting vice president, who also acts as President of the Senate, before being revealed to and certified by Congress. In January, the winner of the electors' presidential election is sworn into office.

Currently, a presidential candidate must receive 270 of 538 electoral votes to be elected chief executive officer of the United States [source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration].

Founding Fathers, Trust Issues and the Popular Vote

Because Electoral College voting does not necessarily reflect the vote of the American people, a president could be elected for whom the majority of Americans did not vote. In fact, it's happened five times already. For example, in 2000, 271 Electoral College votes out of 538 were cast for George W. Bush, who therefore won the presidential election even though he'd failed to garner the majority of popular votes [source: Gore].

So why would America need an Electoral College system that does not, at least some of the time, work the way it was intended? The decision rests solely on the framers of the Constitution and their somewhat surprising distrust of democracy. Instead of allowing for "one person, one vote" presidential elections -- as the democratic process would imply -- the founders opted to place the responsibility in the hands of a select few who "will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite so complicated an investigation," or so wrote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist, No. 68 [source: League of Women Voters].

It wasn't that the American people weren't good decision-makers. Truth is, news didn't travel quickly (especially since telephones, televisions and the Internet had yet to be invented), and neither did the American people. Political leaders were known and supported primarily in specific regions and deciding a presidential election by popular vote would have led to national elections without widespread geographic balance.

Still, when a president is elected in spite of a popular vote in favor of another candidate, it appears trust issues remain -- and this time, they are on the part of the people. Critics decry the Electoral College as an arcane system that must be replaced, while supporters believe the Electoral College maintains a balance between state and federal government, as well as states of varying population sizes [source: England].

In light of mounting support for eliminating the Electoral College and allowing the popular vote to elect the next president instead, it seems the Electoral College will continue to be a hotly contested part of the American political process. A 2011 Gallup Poll reported 62 percent of Americans would forgo the Electoral College in favor of a "one person, one vote" election process [source: Saad]. It makes one wonder what the Founding Fathers would have to say about that. But then again, they could simply argue the point on their blogs.

Author's Note: Why does the U.S. have an electoral college?

Despite the fact that I'm well-informed about political candidates, vote in every election and have campaigned for local office, I know very little about the Electoral College. And while I certainly know more now than I did a few weeks ago, what still seems strange is the elector selection process. How exactly does one become an ideal candidate for the Electoral College? The idea of selecting someone without any clear-cut qualifications and with potential personal ties to candidates is fishy at worst and mysterious at best. At any rate, I think it deserves a much closer look, especially since we're voting for the electors -- whoever they are -- every time we cast a presidential ballot.

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  • England, Trent. "Eliminating the Electoral College Would Corrupt Our Elections." US News. Oct. 1, 2012. (Oct. 13, 2012) http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2012/10/01/eliminating-the-electoral-college-would-corrupt-our-elections
  • Gore, D'Angelo. "Presidents Willing Without Popular Vote." Fact Check. March 24, 2008. (Oct. 13, 2012) http://www.factcheck.org/2008/03/presidents-winning-without-popular-vote/
  • History. "Electoral College." (Oct. 12, 2012) http://www.history.com/topics/electoral-college
  • League of Women Voters. "Who Will Elect the President? The Electoral College System." (Oct. 13, 2012) http://www.lwv.org/content/who-will-elect-president-electoral-college-system
  • Saad, Lydia. "Americans Would Swap Electoral College for Popular Vote." Gallup. Oct. 24, 2011. (Oct. 13, 2012) http://www.gallup.com/poll/150245/americans-swap-electoral-college-popular-vote.aspx
  • U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. "Constitution of the United States." (Oct. 11, 2012) http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html
  • U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. "What is the Electoral College?" (Oct. 12, 2012) http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/about.html
  • U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. "What is the Electoral College? State Laws and Requirements." (Oct. 12, 2012) http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/laws.html