The U.S. Electoral College – how it works

Written by  //  October 16, 2008  //  Government & Governance, Politics  //  No comments

See also David Jones on How the U.S. election process works

There is so much confusion abroad (and often within the U.S.) about the role of the electoral college in choosing the President of the United States that we thought it useful to post this explanation from Wikipedia.
The Electoral College consists of 538 popularly elected representatives who formally select the President and Vice President of the United States.[1] In 2008, it will make this selection on December 15. The Electoral College is an example of an indirect election.
Rather than directly voting for the President and Vice President, United States citizens cast votes for electors. Electors are technically free to vote for anyone eligible to be President, but in practice pledge to vote for specific candidates[2] and voters cast ballots for favored presidential and vice presidential candidates by voting for correspondingly pledged electors.[3] Most states allow voters to choose between statewide slates of electors pledged to vote for the presidential and vice presidential tickets of various parties; the ticket that receives the most votes statewide ‘wins’ all of the votes cast by electors from that state. U.S. presidential campaigns concentrate on winning the popular vote in a combination of states that choose a majority of the electors, rather than campaigning to win the most votes nationally.
Each state has a number of electors equal to the number of its Senators and Representatives in the United States Congress. Additionally, Washington, D.C. is given a number of electors equal to the number held by the smallest states.[4] U.S. territories are not represented in the Electoral College.
Each elector casts one vote for President and one vote for Vice President. In order to be elected, a candidate must have a majority (at least 270) of the electoral votes cast for that office. Should no candidate for President win a majority of the electoral votes, the choice is referred to the House of Representatives.[5] Should no candidate for Vice President possess a majority of the electoral votes, the choice is given to the Senate.[6]
The Constitution allows each state legislature to designate a method of choosing electors. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have adopted a winner-take-all popular vote rule where voters choose between statewide slates of electors pledged to vote for a specific presidential and vice presidential candidate. The candidate that wins the most votes in the state wins the support of all of that state’s electors. The two other states, Maine and Nebraska, use a tiered system where a single elector is chosen within each Congressional district and two electors are chosen by statewide popular vote. U.S. presidential elections are effectively an amalgamation of 51 separate and simultaneous elections (50 states plus the District of Columbia), rather than a single national election.
Candidates can fail to get the most votes in the nationwide popular vote in a presidential election and still win that election. This occurred in 1876, 1888 and 2000. Critics argue the Electoral College is inherently undemocratic and gives certain swing states disproportionate clout in selecting the President and Vice President. Adherents argue that the Electoral College is an important and distinguishing feature of the federal system, and protects the rights of smaller states. Numerous constitutional amendments have been introduced in Congress seeking a replacement of the Electoral College with a direct popular vote; however, no proposal has ever successfully passed both houses.
Background

At the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia Plan used as the basis for discussions called for the Executive to be elected by the Legislature.[7] Delegates from a majority of states agreed to this mode of election.[8] However, a committee formed to work out various details, including the mode of election of the President, recommended instead that the election be by a group of people apportioned among the states in the same numbers as their representatives in Congress (the formula for which had been resolved in lengthy debates resulting in the Connecticut Compromise and Three-fifths compromise), but chosen by each state “in such manner as its Legislature may direct.” Committee member Gouverneur Morris explained the reasons for the change; among others, there were fears of “intrigue” if the President was chosen by a small group of men who met together regularly, as well as concerns for the independence of the Office of the President.[9] Though some delegates preferred popular election, the committee’s proposal was approved, with minor modifications, on September 6, 1787.[10]
In the Federalist Papers No. 39, James Madison argued that the Constitution was designed to be a mixture of state-based and population-based government. The Congress would have two houses, one state-based (Senate) and the other population-based (House of Representatives) 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 state-based and population-based means.

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