U.S. Electoral College

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The United States Electoral College is a term used to describe the 538 President Electors who meet every 4 years to cast the electoral votes for President and Vice President of the United States; their votes represent the most important component of the presidential election. The Presidential Electors are elected by the popular vote on the day traditionally called election day. Presidential Electors meet in their respective state capitol buildings (or in the District of Columbia) 41 days following election day, never as a national body. At the 51 meetings, held on the same day, the Electors cast the electoral votes. The electoral college, like the national convention, is an indirect element in the process of electing the President.

Provisions for the mechanics of presidential elections were established by Article Two, Section One, of the United States Constitution. The 12th Amendment provided that each Elector vote separately for president and vice president. Today, the mechanics of the presidential election are administered by the National Archives and Records Administration via its Office of the Federal Register.

Electors are chosen in a series of state elections held on the same day (election day). The number of electoral votes of each state is the sum of its number of U.S. Senators (always two) and its U.S. Representatives; the District of Columbia has three electoral votes. In each state, voters vote for a slate of pre-selected candidates for Presidential Elector, representing the various candidates for President. State ballots, however, are designed to suggest that the voters are voting for actual candidates for President. Most states use what is termed the short ballot, in which a vote for one party (such as Democratic or Republican) is interpreted as a vote for the entire slate of Presidential Electors. In these states, with rare exceptions, one party wins the entire electoral vote of the state (by either plurality or majority). Maine and Nebraska choose Presidential Electors using what is termed the Maine Method, which makes it possible for the voters to choose Electors of different political parties and split the electoral vote of these two states.

The Presidential Electors of each state (and DC) meet 41 days following the popular vote to cast the electoral votes. The Electors ballot first for President, then for Vice President. On rare occasions, an Elector does not cast the electoral vote for the party's national ticket, usually as a political statement; these people are called faithless Electors. Each Elector signs a document entitled the Certificate of Vote which sets forth the electoral vote of the state (or DC). One original Certificate of Vote is sent by certified mail to the Office of the Vice President.

One month following the casting of the electoral votes, the U.S. Congress meets in joint session to declare the winner of the election. If a candidate for President receives the vote of 270 or more Presidential Electors, the presiding officer (usually the sitting Vice President) declares that candidate to be the president-elect, and a candidate for vice president receiving 270 or more electoral votes is similarly declared to be the vice president-elect.

The process has several exceptions and provisos, which are considered in the main body of this article.

The nature of the process and its complication have been critiqued, with its detractors raising several alternative means of electing the president. This issue was revisited following the Presidential Election of 2000 when Democratic candidate Al Gore won the plurality of the national vote, but failed to win the majority of the Electoral College.

Advocates of the current system have similarly set forth arguments for its advantages.

Electoral College mechanics

The election of the President of the United States and the Vice President of the United States is indirect. Presidential electors are selected on a state by state basis as determined by the laws of each state. Currently each state uses the popular vote on Election Day to appoint electors. Although ballots list the names of the presidential candidates, voters within the 50 states and the District of Columbia are actually choosing Electors from their state when they vote for President and Vice President. These Presidential Electors in turn cast the official (electoral) votes for those two offices. Although the nationwide popular vote is calculated by official and media organizations, it does not determine the winner of the election.

Apportionment of electors

The present allotment of electors by state is shown in the article List of U.S. states by population.

The size of the electoral college has been set at 538 since the election of 1964. Each state is allocated as many electors as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress. Since the most populous states have the most seats in congress, they also have the most electors. The states with the most are California (55), followed by Texas (34) and New York (31). The smallest states by population, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, have three electors each. Because the number of representatives for each state is determined decennially by the United States Census, the electoral votes for each state are also determined by the Census every ten years. The number of electors is equal to the total membership of both houses of Congress (100 Senators and 435 Representatives) plus the 3 electors allocated to the District of Columbia, totaling 538 electors. A candidate must receive a majority of votes from the electoral college (currently 270) to win the Presidency. If in either election for President or Vice-President no one receives a majority, the election is determined by Congress (the House votes with each state's delegation casting one vote for presidential candidates, and the Senate votes for vice presidential candidates).

Under the 23rd Amendment, the District of Columbia is allocated as many Electors as it would have if it were a state, except that it cannot have more Electors than the least populous state. The least populous state (currently Wyoming) has 3 Electors, so the District cannot have more than 3 Electors. However, without this restriction, the population of the District of Columbia would still entitle it to only 3 electors. In fact, based on its population per electoral vote, the District of Columbia is the second most highly represented portion of the electorate, after Wyoming.[1]

How states currently select electors

Presidential elector candidates are nominated by their state political parties in the summer before the Election Day. Each state provides its own means for the nomination of electors. In some states, such as Oklahoma, the Electors are nominated in primaries the same way that other candidates are nominated. Other states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, nominate electors in party conventions. In Pennsylvania, the campaign committees of the candidates name their candidates for Presidential Elector (an attempt to discourage faithless Electors). All states require the names of all Electors to be filed with the Secretary of State (or equivalent) at least a month prior to election day. However, under the 14th Amendment, persons holding a state or federal office-whether elected or appointed-may not become electors (an error made, but corrected, before both the 2000 and 2004 elections [1]).

On election day, voters cast ballots for slates of Presidential Electors pledged to the candidates for president and vice president. In most states, the candidates who win the popular vote have their entire slate of Electors elected. At the time of the state canvass of the vote, the Secretary of State (or equivalent) signs a special form called the Certificate of Ascertainment which sets forth the people appointed to the office of Presidential Elector, along with the number of votes cast for every party's slate of Elector nominees. These Certificates of Ascertainment are forwarded to the Office of the Vice President to be used to verify that the people who cast the electoral votes are in fact the people who were elected for that purpose.

Two states do not elect the Presidential Electors as a single slate. Maine and Nebraska elect two electors by a statewide ballot and choose their remaining Electors by congressional district. The method has been used in Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1991, though neither has split its electoral votes in modern elections.

Meetings of Electors

The Electors meet in their respective state capitals (or in the case of DC, in Washington) on the second Monday of December, at which time they cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for President and Vice President. The electors pledged to a particular candidate are formally chosen in the popular election held on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. That is, while many people believe they are voting for a particular candidate on Election Day in November, they are, in fact, casting a vote for that candidate's electors.

The electoral college never meets as one body; the constitutional theory is that the Congress is elected by the people, while the President and Vice President are elected by the states. Although the procedure in each state varies slightly, the Electors generally follow a similar series of steps and the Congress has constitutional authority to regulate what the states do. The meeting is opened by the election certification official (often the secretary of state), who reads the Certificate of Ascertainment - the document setting forth who was chosen to cast the electoral votes. Those present answer to their name, and they then fill any vacancies in their number. The next step is the selection of a President or Chairman of the meeting, sometimes with a vice chairman also. The Electors sometimes choose a Secretary, often not an Elector, to take the minutes of the meeting. In many states, political officials give short speeches at this point in the proceedings.

When the time for balloting arrives, the Electors choose one or two people to act as tellers. Some states provide for the placing in nomination of a candidate to receive the electoral votes (the candidate for President of the political party of the Electors). Each Elector submits a written ballot with the name of a candidate for President. In New Jersey, the Electors cast ballots by checking the name of the candidate on a pre-printed card; in North Carolina, the Electors write the name of the candidate on a blank card. The tellers count the ballots and announce the result. The next step is the casting of the vote for Vice President, which follows a similar pattern.

After the voting is complete, the Electors complete the Certificate of Vote. This documents states the number of electoral votes cast for President and Vice President. The state election official usually has pre-printed forms ready, and the tellers usually only write down the number of votes cast for appropriate candidates. Five copies of the Certificate of Vote are completed and signed by each Elector. Multiple copies of the Certificate of Vote are signed, in order to provide multiple originals in case one is lost. One copy is sent to President of the U.S. Senate (the sitting Vice President of the United States) by certified mail.

A staff member of the Office of the Vice President (here, acting in his capacity as President of the Senate) collects the Certificates of Vote as they arrive and prepares them for the joint session of Congress. The Certificates are arranged in alphabetical order and placed in two special mahogany boxes. The states Alabama through Missouri (including DC) are placed in one box, and the states Montana through Wyoming are placed in the second box.

Faithless electors

Main article: Faithless elector

A faithless elector is one who casts an electoral vote for someone other than whom they have pledged to elect. On 158 occasions, electors have not cast their votes for president or vice president to whom they were pledged. Of those, 71 votes were changed because the original candidate died before the elector was able to cast a vote. Two votes were not cast at all when electors chose to abstain from casting their electoral vote for any candidate. The remaining 85 were changed by the elector's personal interest or perhaps by accident. Usually, the faithless electors act alone. An exception was in 1836 when 23 Virginia electors changed their vote together. In that year, Martin Van Buren's Vice Presidential running mate, Richard Johnson, did not receive the minimum votes to become the Vice President but ultimately won the office on the first ballot by the United States Senate in 1837.

There are laws to punish faithless electors in 24 states. While no faithless elector has ever been punished, the constitutionality of state pledge laws was brought before the Supreme Court in 1952 (Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214). The court ruled in favor of state laws requiring electors to pledge to vote for the winning candidate, as well as remove electors who refuse to pledge. As stated in the ruling, electors are acting as a function of the state, not the federal government. Therefore, states have the right to govern electors. The constitutionality of state laws punishing electors for actually casting a faithless vote, rather than refusing to pledge, has never been decided by the Supreme Court. In any event, a state may only punish a faithless elector after-the-fact; it has no power to change his or her vote.

As electoral slates are normally chosen by the political party and/or the party's presidential nominee, electors are usually those with high loyalty to the party and its candidate, and a faithless elector runs a greater risk of party censure than governmental action.

Joint Session of Congress and the Contingent Election

Federal law mandates that Congress assemble in joint session on the sixth day of the calendar year following the meetings of the Presidential Electors to count the electoral votes and declare the winners of the election.[2] The meeting is held at 1:00 p.m. in the hall of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Vice President is expected to preside, but in several cases the President Pro Tempore of the Senate has presided. The Vice President and the Speaker of the House sit at the podium, with the Vice President in the seat of the Speaker of the House. Senate pages bring in the two mahogany boxes and place them on tables in front of the Senators and Representatives. Each branch appoints two tellers to count the vote. Relevant portions of the Certificate of Vote are read for each state, in alphabetical order. If there are no objections, the presiding officer declares the result of the vote and, if applicable, states who was elected President and Vice President. The Senators then depart from the House chamber.

If no candidate for President receives an absolute electoral majority 270 votes out of the 538 possible, then the new House of Representatives is required to go into session immediately to vote for President. In this case, the House of Representatives chooses from the three candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each state delegation has a single vote, decided by majority decision (an evenly divided state delegation is considered to abstain). A candidate receiving the majority of votes of all states (currently 26) is declared the president-elect. If no candidate receives a majority, the House proceeds to a second ballot and continues balloting until a candidate receives a majority of the state unit votes. This situation would most likely occur only when more than two candidates receive electoral votes, but could theoretically happen in a two-person contest if each received exactly 269 electoral votes. As of 2007, the Democratic Party controls 26 state delegations, and the Republican Party controls 20.

If no candidate for Vice President receives an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the United States Senate must do the same, with the top two vote getters for that office as candidates. The Senate votes in the normal manner in this case, not by States. If the Senate is evenly split on the matter, then the sitting Vice President is entitled to cast a tie-breaking vote.

If the House of Representatives has not chosen a winner in time for the inauguration (noon on January 20), then the Twentieth Amendment specifies that the new Vice President becomes Acting President until the House selects a President. If the winner of the Vice Presidential election is not known by then either, then under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Speaker of the House of Representatives would become Acting President until the House selects a President or the Senate selects a Vice President.

As of 2004, the House of Representatives has chosen the President on two occasions, in 1800 and in 1824. The Senate has chosen the Vice President once, in 1837.


The Electoral College is intended to dilute the votes of population centers that may have different concerns from the majority of the country. The system is designed to require presidential candidates to appeal to many different types of interests, rather than those of a specific region or state. The College enabled the Founding Fathers to incorporate the Connecticut Compromise and Three-Fifths Compromise into the system of choosing the President and Vice President, sparing the convention further acrimony over the issue of slavery and state representation.

In the Federalist Papers No. 39, James Madison argued that the Constitution was designed to be a mixture of federal (state-based) and national (population-based) government. The Congress would have two houses, one federal and one national in character, while the President would be elected by a mixture of the two modes, giving some electoral power to the states and some to the people in general. Both the Congress and the President would be elected by mixed federal and national means. [2]

Original plan

The term "Electoral College" is not used in the United States Constitution, and it was not until the early 1800s that it came into general usage as the designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for President and Vice President. It was first written into Federal law in 1845, and today the term appears in , in the section heading and in the text as "college of electors."

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution says, "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." It then goes on to describe how the electors vote for President. Article II, Section 1, Clause 4 of the Constitution says, "The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States."

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution provided for the original fashion by which the President and Vice President were to be chosen by the Electors. The primary difference was that the Electors voted for two Persons for President. After the choosing of the President, whoever had the most Electoral Votes would become the Vice President. Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 was superseded by the Twelfth Amendment in 1803.

Alternative methods of choosing electors

The current system of choosing Presidential Electors is called the short ballot. In all states, voters choose among slates of candidates for the associated Elector; only a few states list the names of the Presidential Electors on the ballot. (In some states, if a voter wishes to write in a candidate for president, the voter also is required to write in the names of candidates for Elector.)

Before the advent of the short ballot in the early twentieth century, the most common means of electing the Presidential Electors was through the General Ticket. The General Ticket is quite similar to the current system and is often confused with it. In the General Ticket, voters cast ballots for individuals running for Presidential Elector (while in the short ballot, voters cast ballots for an entire slate of Electors). In the General Ticket, the state canvass would report the number of votes cast for each candidate for Elector, a complicated process in states like New York with multiple positions to fill. Both the General Ticket and the short ballot are often considered At Large or winner-takes-all voting. The short ballot was adopted by the various states at different times; it was adopted for use by North Carolina and Ohio in 1932 (possibly the first year in which it was used). Alabama was still using the General Ticket as late as 1960 and was one of the last states to switch to the short ballot.

Interstate compact

This proposal calls for an interstate compact whereby individual states agree to allocate their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. The agreement is triggered only upon a certain threshold of states enacting electoral reallocation legislation. The state legislatures together would then establish a direct vote and effectively circumvent the Electoral College system if enough electoral votes switch. The National Popular Vote plan recommends that the present manner of allocating electors shall remain in force until enough states have signed on as to account for a majority of electoral votes.

The proposal centers on Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, which provides, "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."^  Many partial versions of this plan have emerged over the years.

Maryland is the first and only state so far to have passed the legislation. On April 10, 2007, the Governor of the State of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, signed a bill into law providing that, should enough states adopt the same law, the whole of the Maryland's electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate with the greatest number of votes nationally for his or her electors, instead of going to the candidate whose electors receive the most votes within the state. [3]

Appointment by state legislature

Another method of choosing electors is selection by the state legislature. It was used by more than half of the states in 1792 and 1800 and exactly half of the states in 1812. One of the reasons that most United States history textbooks don't start reporting the popular vote until the election of 1824 is because more than a quarter of all the states used legislative choice in previous elections, so there was no popular vote in those states. Even in 1824, when Andrew Jackson famously accused Adams and Clay of a corrupt bargain because he lost in spite of having pluralities of both the popular and electoral votes, a full quarter of the states (6 of 24) had the state legislatures choose their electors. By the following election, only Delaware and South Carolina continued to use legislative choice, and Delaware dropped out the following election. South Carolina held on to legislative choice until it became the first state to secede in December 1860.

Legislative appointment made two more appearances on the electoral stage: first, in 1868, the newly reconstructed state of Florida appointed its electors, having been readmitted too late to hold elections. Then, in 1876, the newly admitted state of Colorado used legislative choice due to a lack of time and money to hold an election. (It was also a potent threat in the 2000 election: had the recounts continued, the Florida legislature was prepared to appoint the Republican slate of electors to avoid missing the federal deadline for choosing electors.)

The Constitution gives the power to the state legislatures to decide how electors are chosen, and it is easier and cheaper for a state legislature to simply appoint a slate of electors than to create a legislative framework for holding elections to determine the electors. As noted above, the two situations in which legislative choice has been used since the Civil War have both been because there was not enough time or money to prepare for an election. However, appointment by state legislature has a serious flaw: legislatures can deadlock more easily than the electorate. In fact, this is precisely what happened in 1789, when New York failed to appoint any electors.

Electoral districts

Another method for choosing electors is to divide a state into electoral districts, and the voters of each district choose a single elector, much as states are presently divided into congressional districts for choosing representatives. The electoral districts cannot correspond with congressional districts, though, because there are two more electoral districts than congressional districts. As with congressional districts, moreover, this method is vulnerable to gerrymandering.

States which have used Electoral Vote Districting and the years used:
  • Illinois: 1820, 1824.
  • Kentucky: 1792, 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812, 1816, 1820, 1824.
  • Maryland: 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812, 1816, 1820, 1824, 1828, 1832.
  • Michigan: 1892.
  • Missouri: 1824.
  • North Carolina: 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808.
  • Tennessee: 1804, 1808, 1812, 1816, 1820, 1824, 1828.
  • Virginia: 1789, 1792, 1796.

Maine Method

The Maine Method is a mixture of the district and statewide/short ballot modes of selection. It has this name because it was adopted by Maine for the 1972 presidential election and remains in place. Nebraska has used this method for presidential elections since 1992.

In the Maine Method, the votes for president in each congressional district elect one Presidential Elector. The state-wide vote elects two more Presidential Electors. The state's electoral votes could be split among two or more candidates, as the state's Congressional delegation can be split among parties.

The Maine Method was first used by Massachusetts in the elections of 1804, 1812, and 1820. After splitting off from Massachusetts in 1820, Maine continued to use this method through the election of 1828, then abandoned it for 144 years before returning to it for the election of 1972.

In the 18 state contests in which this method has been used, only once has it achieved a result different from winner-take-all: in Maine, in 1828, 1 of Maine's 9 electoral votes went to Andrew Jackson.

New York, 1828

In 1828, New York used its own variant of the Maine method for choosing electors. Just as Maine and Nebraska now do, voters in each congressional district would select one elector. Then these electors would in turn choose the remaining electors, instead of these electors being directly determined by voters statewide. In this single state contest, it resulted in a 20–16 split between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams.

Arguments for and against the current system

Arguments against the current system

Unequal weight of voters

Supporters of direct election argue that it would give everyone an equally weighted vote, regardless of what state he or she lives in, and oppose giving disproportionately amplified voting power to voters in states with small populations. Under the current system, the vote of an individual living in a state with three electoral votes is proportionally more influential than the vote of an individual living in a state with a large number of electoral votes.

Essentially, the Electoral College ensures that candidates, particularly in recent elections, pay attention to key 'swing-states' (those states that are not firmly rooted in either the Republican or Democratic party). It equally assures that voters in states that are not believed to be competitive will be disregarded.

Losing the popular vote

In the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000, the candidate who received a plurality of the popular vote did not become president. The 1824 election was eventually decided by Congress and thus distinct from the last three which were decided without. It has also been argued that the 1960 election was lost by the candidate receiving the most popular votes. [4]

Proponents of the system counter that the Electoral College requires candidates to garner more widespread support throughout the Union; a popular vote system could elect a person who wins by a large margin in a few states over another person who wins by small margins in most states. The latter candidate, the argument goes, appeals to a broader array of interests than the former and is less likely to be a demagogue or extremist. However, the Electoral College is not guaranteed to favor the latter candidate in that scenario. In fact, given the 2000 allocation of electors, a candidate could win with the support of just the 11 largest states.

Given the electoral college, there is no legal significance to the national popular vote. Because combining the different statewide popular votes into a single national vote has no legal or statistical significance, both voters and campaigns may base their strategies around the existence of the Electoral College. Claims of the electoral college denying the popular will are, therefore, debatable. For example, voters in Massachusetts or Texas in 2004, as their respective states were sure to vote Democrat or Republican for President, were more likely to vote for a third party candidate, or not vote at all, since their vote for their preferred Democratic or Republican candidate was extremely unlikely to change the result. Conversely, a voter in Florida was more likely to vote Democrat or Republican, even if they favored a third-party candidate, because their vote was much more likely to make a difference. Similarly, in any close race, candidates campaign to maximize electoral votes, not to maximize national popular vote totals.

The effects of this phenomenon are somewhat known, but impossible to quantify in any close election, such as in 2000, when Al Gore had more of the cast votes than George W. Bush.

Focus on large swing states

Most states use a winner-take-all system, in which the candidate with the most votes in that state receives all of the state's electoral votes. This gives candidates an incentive to pay the most attention to states without a clear favorite, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. For example, California, Texas, and New York, in spite of having the largest populations, have in recent elections been considered safe for a particular party (Democratic for California & New York; Republican for Texas), and therefore candidates typically devote relatively few resources, in both time and money, to such states.

It is also theoretically possible to win the election by winning all of eleven states and disregarding the rest of the country. If one ticket were to take California (55 votes), Texas (34), New York (31), Florida (27) Illinois (21), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), Georgia (15), New Jersey (15), and North Carolina (15), that ticket would have 271 votes, which would be enough to win. (In theory, if a minimum number of voters were to vote in those eleven states, the other major ticket could have a landslide victory in the popular vote and still lose the election.) But such exercises are just that - exercises. There is no election in American history in which such an event has occurred or come close to occurring. In the close elections of 2000 and 2004, these eleven states gave 111 votes to Republican candidate George W. Bush and 160 votes to Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry.

Proponents claim, however, that adoption of the popular vote would simply shift the disproportionate focus to large cities at the expense of rural areas.[3] Candidates might also be inclined to campaign hardest in their base areas to maximize turnout among core supporters, and ignore more closely divided parts of the country. Whether such developments would be good or bad is a matter of normative political theory and political interests of the voters in question.

Favors less populous states

As well as to give more voting power to citizens of less populated states, the electoral college gives disproportionate power to those state interests as well. This can further correspond with national political control, since most states tend to go either Republican or Democrat, and the less populous states tending toward the former. Democrats often complain for this reason that the electoral college favors the Republican party, by boosting the electoral weight of Republican states.

Attempts have been made to prove the converse with a game theory analysis, using the Banzhaf Power Index (BPI) according to which, individual voters in California (highest electoral vote count) have approximately 3.3 times the individual power to choose a president as voters of Montana (Highest population with the minimum 3 electors). [4] However, Banzhaf's analysis has been critiqued as treating votes like coin-flips, and an empirical model of voting rather than a random voting model as used by Banzhaf brings results which do not favor larger states.[5]

Disadvantage for third parties

Some proponents of proportional representation claim that, because third parties generally start as regional phenomena and because the Electoral College is a form of regional allocation, the Electoral College would enhance the power of third parties if electoral votes were allocated by proportional representation. Generally, the winner-take-all manner of allocating a state's delegates, coupled with the winner-take-all approach of the college itself, decreases the importance of minor parties. Of course, some winner-take-all approach is ultimately unavoidable in an election for an office to be filled by a single person. The states do not have to allocate votes on a winner-take-all approach, however. Therefore a winner-take-all approach is avoidable in an election for an office to be filled by a single person.

Arguments for the current system

Requires a distribution of popular support to win the Presidency

Proponents of the Electoral College argue that organizing votes by regions forces a candidate to seek popular support over a majority of the country. Since a candidate cannot count on winning the election based solely on a heavy concentration of votes in a few areas, the Electoral College avoids much of the sectionalism that has plagued other geographically large nations, such as China, India, the Soviet Union, and the Roman Empire. Electoral College opponents, however, argue that this regional system can dilute the overall will of the people in close elections by thwarting the candidate with the popular majority.[6] Considering the distrust the Constitution's framers had of direct democracy, this result can be viewed as a foreseen and desirable result of the arrangement.[7]

There are some examples of candidates winning elections without broad national support. For example, Lincoln won in 1860 without contesting a single southern state. On the other hand, in the elections of 1876 and 1888 Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, respectively, both lost the popular vote but won in the electoral college. In each case, the victorious candidate demonstrated broader national support, losing the popular vote only because his opponent rolled up very large margins in a small number of southern states. Given that violence and fraud prevented many blacks and white Republicans from voting in Southern states in these elections, each could legitimately claim a broader popular mandate than their respective opponents. [8]

Maintains the federal character of the nation

The United States of America is a federal coalition; it consists of component states, each of which are joined in an alliance with what has, traditionally, been a small, state-controlled central government. Proponents of the current system argue that the collective opinion of even a small state merits attention not to be entirely overshadowed simply by a small portion of a very populous state. For many years early in the nation's history, up until the Jacksonian Era, most states appointed their electors by a vote of the state legislature, and proponents argue that, in the end, the election of the President must still come down to the decisions of each state, or the federal nature of the United States will give way to a single massive, centralized government.[9]

Enhances status of minority groups

Far from decreasing the power of minority groups by depressing voter turnout, proponents argue that, by making the votes of a given state an all-or-nothing affair, minority groups can provide the critical edge that allows a candidate to win. This encourages candidates to court a wide variety of such minorities and special interests.[9]

However, this does not apply to states like Maine and Nebraska that do not employ an all-or-nothing system for selecting their electors, though it does apply to individual electors.

Encourages stability through the two-party system

Many proponents of the electoral college see its negative effect on third parties as a good thing. They believe it protects the most powerful office in the country from control by what these proponents view as regional minorities until they can moderate their views to win broad, long-term support from across the entire nation. Critics of this argument disagree with the statement that emerging third parties are a bad thing.

Isolation of election problems

Some supporters of the Electoral College note that it isolates the impact of potential election fraud or other problems to the state where such occurs. The College prevents instances where a party dominant in one state may dishonestly inflate the votes for a candidate and thereby affect the election outcome. Recounts, for instance, occur only on a state-by-state basis, not nationwide. Similarly, the College acts to isolate less malicious election problems to the state in which they occur.[10]

Maintains separation of powers

The Constitution separated government into three branches that check each other to minimize threats to liberty and encourage deliberation of governmental acts. Under the original framework, only members of the House of Representatives were directly elected by the people, with members of the Senate chosen by state legislatures, the President by the Electoral College, and the judiciary by the President and the Senate. The President was not directly elected in part due to fears that he could assert a national popular mandate that would undermine the legitimacy of the other branches, and potentially result in tyranny.

Death or unsuitability of a candidate

While it is common to think of the electoral votes as numbers, the college is in fact made up of real people (usually party regulars of the party whose candidate wins each state). If a candidate were to die or become in some other way unsuitable to serve as President or Vice President, these electors can choose a suitable replacement who would most likely come from the same party of the candidate who won the election. The time period of such a death or unsuitability that is covered extends from before election day (many states cannot change ballots at a late stage) until the day the electors vote, the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December.

In the election of 1872, Democratic candidate Horace Greeley did in fact die before the meeting of the electoral college, resulting in Democratic disarray; the electors who were to have voted for Greeley split their votes across several candidates, including three votes cast for the deceased Greeley. However, President Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican incumbent, had already won an absolute majority of electors. Because it was the death of a losing candidate, there was therefore no pressure to agree on a replacement candidate. There has never been a case of a candidate of the winning party dying.

In the election of 1912, after the Republicans had renominated President Taft and Vice President Sherman, Sherman died shortly before the election, too late to change the names on the ballot, thus causing Sherman to be listed posthumously. That ticket finished third behind the Democrats (Woodrow Wilson) and the Progressives (Theodore Roosevelt), and the 8 electoral votes that Sherman would have received were cast for Nicholas M. Butler.

Reform proposals

Current proposed legislative adjustment

Legislation is currently before Congress (H.R.1433) that would add a congressional seat to Utah (going from three representatives to four) and give Washington DC a voting seat in the House of Representatives. The additional seat in Utah would give that state one additional vote in the Electoral College (going from five to six). Since Washington DC is already given three voting members in the Electoral College (Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution), this change in Congress would not change its representation in the Electoral College. If this legislation passes and survives the inevitable challenge to its constitutionality (Washington, D.C. is not a state and is thus not allowed representation in Congress under Article 1, Sections 1 and 2 of the U.S. Constitution) the total number of Electoral College votes would increase by one to 539. But the majority needed to elect a president would still be 270.

Proportional vote

The primary proposal of this type is for states to implement a proportional vote system. Under such a system, electors would be selected in proportion to the votes cast for their candidate or party, rather than being selected to represent only the plurality vote. As an example, consider the 2000 election, in which the George W. Bush / Richard Cheney (Republican) and Albert Gore Jr. / Joseph Lieberman (Democrat) tickets were the primary contenders, with the Ralph Nader / Winona LaDuke (Green) ticket taking a small but noteworthy minority. In California, the approximate proportion of votes for these tickets was 41.65 percent Bush/Cheney, 53.45 percent Gore/Lieberman, and 3.82 percent Nader/LaDuke. Under the current system, all 54 electoral votes were for Gore/Lieberman. Under a simple proportional system, the votes might be distributed as 23 Bush/Cheney, 29 Gore/Lieberman, and 2 Nader/LaDuke.

As a practical matter, this system would be very difficult to implement. According to the Constitution, the state legislatures decide how electors are chosen. It is usually not in the interest of an individual state to switch to a method of proportional allocation because it reduces that state's influence in the Electoral College. This can be illustrated by the case of Colorado, which in 2004 voted down an initiative on its 2004 ballot, Amendment 36, which would have instituted a system of proportional allocation of electors beginning immediately with the 2004 election. Had the proposal passed, Colorado would not have been a swing state in 2008, no matter how closely contested. The state's nine electoral votes would almost certainly end up divided 5-4, no matter which candidate won a plurality. Thus, winning the Colorado popular vote would only give the successful candidate one additional electoral vote over his or her opponent instead of nine.

A perceived problem with dividing electoral votes proportionally is that it would be harder for a candidate to achieve a majority of the electoral vote, since a proportional system would enable a third party candidate to win electoral votes. If this system had been used in 1992 and 1996, and all electors had voted as pledged, there would have been no winner at all, and the House of Representatives would have chosen the president, and the Senate would have selected the Vice President. In 1996 Robert Dole would almost certainly have been the House winner, and Jack Kemp the Senate winner, despite receiving significantly fewer votes than Bill Clinton and Al Gore. In 2000, Al Gore would have received 269 electoral votes, George W. Bush 263, and Ralph Nader 6. If all electors voted as pledged, the Presidential race would have gone to the House, and Bush likely would have won, but the Vice Presidential decision in the Senate would have likely split 50–50 for Lieberman, with Al Gore (as then-president of the Senate) casting the deciding vote.

Maine–Nebraska method

Other observers argue that the current electoral rules of Maine and Nebraska should be extended nationwide. As previously noted, the winner in each of those two states is only guaranteed two of Maine's four and Nebraska's five electoral votes, with the winner of each Congressional district in those states receiving one electoral vote. Using the California example again, Gore won 33 of the state's Congressional districts and the state overall, while Bush won 19 Congressional districts. The state's electoral votes would then have gone 35–19 for Gore.

However, this kind of allocation would still make it possible for the loser of the popular vote to become president. Dividing electoral votes by House district winners would create yet another incentive for partisan gerrymandering. Direct election proponents oppose the district method also because candidates would focus on the votes of only the competitive districts, making the votes of even fewer Americans matter than when candidates focus on votes in competitive states.[11]

Another perceived problem with this suggestion is that it would actually further increase the advantage of small states. In winner-take-all, the small states' disproportionately high number of electors is partially offset by the fact that large states with their big electoral blocks are such a highly desirable boon to a candidate that large swing states actually receive much more attention during the campaign than smaller states. In proportional representation or Maine–Nebraska, this advantage of the large states would be gone.

Yet another argument with both Maine–Nebraska and proportional representation is that even if it is considered superior as a nationwide system, winner-take-all generally maximizes the power of an individual state and thus while it might be in the interest of the nation, it is not in the interest of the state to adopt any other system. Since the United States constitution gives the states the power to choose their method of appointing the electors, nationwide Maine–Nebraska without a constitutional amendment mandating it seems unlikely, and the passage of such an amendment seems equally unlikely since the House delegations of the largest states (against whose interests such a system would be), taken together, easily surpass the one third of the House size that is needed to block a constitutional amendment.

Abolishing the non-proportional electors (drop 2)

Another proposed reform is to make the number of electors that each state has the same as its number of Representatives (effectively the same as the current system, except taking two electoral votes from each state). This plan, sometimes called "drop 2," could still be seen as inherently unfair, as some of the least populous states would be proportionally overrepresented while some of the slightly more populous single-representative states would be significantly underrepresented (for example, Wyoming, the least populous state, has 1 Representative for 510,000 inhabitants; Montana has 1 Representative for 935,000 inhabitants; compare this to California, which averages one Representative for each 681,000 Californians).

Proponents of this suggestion say that this will preserve the Electoral College's benefits and make the system more democratic at the same time. Others say this will remove the extra power given to the small states intended to make elections more fair and there would still exist the phenomenon of non-swing states being ignored.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has proposed decreasing the number of electors in the Electoral College from 538 to 438, with each state allotted the same number of votes as their number of representatives in the House of Representatives (with three votes for the District of Columbia). Each state would be required to use a winner-take-all system. Then, 100 votes would automatically be given to the winner of the national popular vote. Schlesinger felt that this would maintain the stability of a two-party system (as a winner-take-all system already does), while virtually guaranteeing that the person who wins the national popular vote would automatically win the Presidential election.

See also



1. ^ [5] 2006 Census estimates
2. ^ [6] 3 U.S. Code, Chapter 1.
3. ^ Hands Off the Electoral College by Rep. Ron Paul, MD, December 28, 2004
4. ^ Banzhaf Power Index by Mark Livingston, Department of Computer Science, University of North Carolina
5. ^ Gelman, Andrew & Jonathan Katz (2002), "The Mathematics and Statistics of Voting Power", Statistical Science 17 (4): 420-435, <[7]
6. ^ [8]
7. ^ [9]
8. ^ [10]
9. ^ Kimberling, William C. The Electoral College. Federal Election Commission, Date unknown.
10. ^ [11]
11. ^ FairVote [12] Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral College Votes

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