Why Does the U.S. Have an Electoral College?

The Electoral College is a group of people that elect the president and vice president of the United States. The Electoral College consists of 538 electors and a majority vote of 270 is required to elect the president. Each state’s entitled allotment of electors equals the number of members in its Congressional delegation, one for each member in the House of Representatives and two for the Senators. Under the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution, the District of Columbia is allowed 3 electors and treated as a state for the purpose of the Electoral College. Each candidate running for President in a state has their own group of electors that are typically chosen by the candidate’s political party. The founding fathers established it in the Constitution as a compromise between the election of a President by a vote in Congress and an election by popular vote of qualified citizens.

The Origins of the Electoral College begin back when the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was being created. According to The US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives website it considered several methods of electing the President including election by Congress, by the governors of the states, by the state legislatures, by a special group of Members chosen by lot, and by direct popular election. Eventually, in the Convention, the matter was referred to the Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters, which created the Electoral College in its original form. The plan was met with widespread approval and was incorporated into the final document with some minor changes being made to it. The purpose of this being created was in order to accommodate differing state and federal interests, provide a degree of participation in the election, give the smaller states some added leverage in the process, to maintain the independence of Congress, and to keep the election process from political manipulation.

In order to prevent political manipulation, the Constitution gave each state a number of electors equal to the combined total of its membership in the Senate and its delegation in the House of Representatives. The electors are chosen by the states “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” (U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1). The qualifications for the office are rather broad: the only persons prohibited from serving as electors are Senators, Representatives, and people “holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States” (U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1). In order to further prevent manipulation of the process, the electors assemble in their respective states and cast their ballots as state units, rather than meet at a central location. A majority of the electoral votes are necessary to elect, a requirement intended to ensure broad acceptance of a winning candidate, while election by the House was provided as a default in the event of an Electoral College deadlock. Congress was then empowered to set a nationwide date for choice and meeting of electors. “The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Constitution does not require that Electors be completely free to act as they choose and therefore, political parties may extract pledges from electors to vote for the parties’ nominees. Some state laws provide that so-called “faithless Electors” may be subject to fines or may be disqualified for casting an invalid vote and be replaced by a substitute elector.” (National Archives)

All these structural elements of the Electoral College system remain in effect currently. The original method of electing the President and Vice President proved to be unworkable and was replaced by the 12th Amendment which was ratified in 1804. Under the original system, each elector cast two votes for the President and no vote for the Vice President. The votes were then counted and the candidate that received the most was elected President and the runner-up then became Vice President. The 12th Amendment replaced this system with separate ballots for the President and the Vice President, with electors casting a single vote for each office.

The people of the United States do not vote for the president. Instead, they vote for the electors who represent their state in the second round of voting. It’s the Electoral College that actually votes for the President. Some think that the system is unfair and argue that if the candidate loses in your state then your vote “doesn’t count” in the Electoral College. These individuals feel as if there should be a direct election for the president so that every citizen gets one vote and whoever gets the majority wins. Others believe that the Electoral College has many benefits such as keeping smaller states from being overwhelmed by the large states and rural areas from being overshadowed by cities. The Electoral College gives more power to the people. Mathematicians have discovered that dividing a national election into many separate state elections actually increases the power of each citizens vote. As an individual voter they have more influence on the outcome of the presidential elections under the Electoral College system than in a direct national election. How much more depends on the number of states, their populations, and how the electoral votes are distributed‒but in every case, the Electoral College increases each voter’s influence.

However, the presidential election of 2000 stands at best as a paradox, at worst as a scandal, of American democracy. Democrat Albert Gore won the most votes, a half million more than his Republican opponent George W. Bush, but lost the presidency in the electoral college by a count of 271-267. Even this count was suspect, dependent on the tally in Florida, where many minority voters were denied the vote, ballots were confusing, and recounts were mishandled and manipulated. The choice of their leader came not from the citizens of the nation, but from lawyers battling for five weeks. The final decision was made not by 105 million voters, but by a 5-4 majority of the unelected U.S. Supreme Court, issuing a tainted and partisan verdict. The election of 2000, however, will not fade. It encapsulates the political forces shaping the United States at the end of the twentieth century. Its controversial results will affect the nation for many years of the new era. The ballots also revealed a rare instance of the conflict between “big states” and “small states” that had been feared by the framers of the Constitution. Gore almost won because he carried six of the nine largest states, an advantage of 165 to 78, while Bush carried thirteen of the nineteen smallest, a 54-23 lead. The Texan’s dominance in these small states exactly compensated for his loss of the single largest state, California. Even though he accumulated a million fewer votes than Gore (as well as a smaller plurality) in the combined totals of these states, the inherent tilt of the electoral college toward the smaller states brought a draw in this particular matchup.

In the resulting case, Bush v. Gore, the US Supreme Court ordered that the recount be stopped. The incomplete recount was halted, and Bush was awarded Florida’s electoral votes and declared the president-elect. The Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore was controversial because the 5-4 vote was along partisan lines, meaning the justices appointed by Republican presidents (with the exception of Justice David Souter) ruled in favor of Bush, and the justices appointed by Democratic presidents argued in favor of Gore. Another point of controversy in the 2000 election was the fact that George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, was the governor of Florida at the time of the recount, although no evidence of wrongdoing surfaced. Al Gore conceded the election to Bush, but disagreed with the US Supreme Court’s ruling. The 2000 presidential election was the closest in the history of the US Electoral College and the first ever to be decided by the US Supreme Court. George W. Bush entered office as an embattled president, with many questioning his legitimacy. Although Bush worked to unite the country in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, he proved a polarizing figure during his presidency.

In order to prevent political manipulation, the Constitution gave each state a number of electors equal to the combined total of its membership in the Senate and its delegation in the House of Representatives. In every case the Electoral College increases each voter’s influence.

The electoral college is supposed to guarantee that populous states can’t dominate an election, but it also sets up a disparity in representation. Historically, votes cast in Southern states are more overrepresented than their populations. However, California has one electoral vote per 712,000 people, Wyoming ” the least populous state in the country ” has one electoral vote per 195,000 people. Thus creating an unfairness to the process while attempting to promote equal representation. Implementing a new system to elect the President will have problems of its own arise. The electoral college isn’t a perfect system, and with two of the past five presidential elections going to the candidate who didn’t win the popular vote, calls to abolish the centuries-old system may get louder.

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