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 procedure is as follows:
- Political parties and independent presidential candidates select their electors.
- Political parties nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates.
- On the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, people choose the electors of their state depending on their presidential preference.
- 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. They are only allowed to cast votes for presidents and vice presidents of their own states.
- 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. No one since has won a majority of the popular vote and lost the election.
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.
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.