The Electoral College is the method by which the United States elects a president every four years. The Founders wanted Electors to gather in each state rather than in a common place, thereby minimizing intrigue and corruption. Each state then votes on the presidential candidate. The details are specified in the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1, Clause 3.
The Electoral College is an essential safeguard against:
- Voter fraud, either in a big city or a state being used to change the outcome nationally, which is prevented by the Electoral College; or in general, as if one hypothetically changes only a few votes in every precinct in the nation, it could completely change the entire election
- Balkanization of our Nation such that a few states, like California, or urban areas to the exclusion of rural areas, would determine the outcome and divide our Nation geographically
- a national crisis if a close election required a recount, because in the absence of the Electoral College the recount would be done everywhere
- tyranny by the majority, which the Founders strongly opposed
The electoral procedure to select a President and Vice President is as follows:
- Political parties and independent presidential candidates select their electors under rules established by state laws.
- Political parties nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates, under rules established by each party.
- On the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, people choose the electors of their state based on the Presidential preference announced by each candidate for elector. (Most states use a "short form ballot" where the name of the candidates for President and Vice President appear on the ballot instead of the names of the candidates for elector.)
- On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December, electors of each state meet in their state capital to cast separate votes for the president and vice president. Many states have laws that require the electors to vote for the presidential and vice presidential candidates that they had promised to support.
- The ballots are than sealed and sent to the President of the Senate (the Vice President), who opens them on January 6.
- Candidates who win the majority of ballots for president and vice president will then be declared the winners. If no one wins the majority of the ballots for president, then the House of Representatives makes the choice from among the top three contenders. In this situation, each state's delegation has one vote and the majority of the states will have to elect the president. If there is no winner for vice president the senate will select between the top two contenders.
- At noon, January 20, the new president and vice president will be sworn into office.
The number of electors from each state is determined as being the same as the combined number of that state's senators and representatives. As the number of senators is always two, and the number of representatives is roughly proportional to the state's population, this means that larger states have more electors than smaller states, but smaller states have a proportionately higher number of electors. This mechanism was devised by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between large states (who felt they should have a greater say than the smaller states) and small states (who feared a straight proportional number would leave them too little influence).
Nearly all the states vote on a winner-take-all basis, such that whoever wins a plurality of the votes in that state then receives all of the Electoral College votes for that state. The only two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which divide their electoral votes along congressional districts. Both states would therefore be able to split their share of votes between candidates. In practise however, this never happened until 2008, when Barack Obama won Nebraska's second congressional district, therefore winning one of Nebraska's five votes. The remaining four were won by John McCain.
Elections in 1800 and 1824 required the House of Representatives to select a president, as no candidate won a majority. The 1824 vote leader, Andrew Jackson, was later elected in 1828. In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but Rutherford B. Hayes won with the elector vote.
In 1888, Grover Cleveland got a plurality of the popular vote (by a margin of 110,476) but Benjamin Harrison won the electoral college vote, and became president. In 1960, Richard Nixon got a plurality of the popular vote, unless you count votes for John F. Kennedy that actually went to electors that were pledged to vote for someone else. In the 2000 election, Al Gore narrowly got a plurality of the popular vote, and George W. Bush narrowly won the electoral vote. After a careful recount of the election results in Florida, George W. Bush was declared the 43rd President of the United States. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and Donald Trump won the electoral vote.
The electoral college came into being in part because of the work of Pierce Butler (Founding Father), who was looking for a way to protect the electoral process against corruption and foreign intrigue.
1. Bloom, Sol, and Johnson, Lars. The Story of the Constitution. Christian Liberty Press, 2001.
2. For an essay on attempts to abolish the Electoral College, see Essay:Electoral College.