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Electoral College Explained

Historical Development

The Electoral College, as outlined in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, was established as a compromise between election of the President by Congress and election by popular vote. The founders aimed to form a buffer between population and the selection of a President, which originally involved electors chosen by the state legislatures.

The system underwent significant changes with the 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, following a highly problematic election in 1800 where Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, tied in electoral votes, throwing the election to the House of Representatives. This amendment mandated separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President to avoid similar confusion in the future.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, tweaks to the Electoral College arose predominantly through changes in how states chose their electors. Initially, state legislatures selected electors, but by the mid-19th century, all states had shifted to popular elections. Some states originally allowed their legislatures to represent the voter's intent, but this has largely fallen out of practice except in rare instances of legislative interposition.

By the time of the contentious 1876 election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, wherein neither candidate secured a majority of electoral votes, a special Electoral Commission was established. This incident illustrated profound flaws in the Electoral College system and led to calls for reform, seen later during pivotal elections.

The 1960s introduced the rise of calls for a direct popular vote after multiple attempts for change emerged throughout the 20th century. The most significant might be during the 1968 presidential election, catalyzed by shifts in public opinion that leaned heavily towards abolishment of the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular vote. However, the legislative fruition of these calls remained stagnant, mainly due to political and regional partisanship.

The skewed weight per vote due to demographic distribution across states has remained a pivotal issue. States like Wyoming having more electoral influence per capita compared to densely populated California reiterates disparities that frequently ignite discussions on the relevance and fairness of this system in modern elections.

Faithless electors have also occasionally influenced debates around the Electoral College's efficacy. In principle, electors are expected to vote for the candidate who received the most votes in their respective states, but instances of electors casting votes by either personal discretion or party influence have surfaced sporadically, leading to calls for tighter laws on elector commitments.

Current discussions also pivot on the effects of the Winner-Take-All method employed by most states, influencing strategic campaign placements, where candidates focus primarily on battleground states while often overlooking ones perceived as staunchly loyal to a particular party. This tactical disregard potentially undermines political engagement in "secure" states.

Alternative proposals to the existing format include the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, advanced as a way to ensure the Popular Vote winner becomes the President without amending the Constitution. Participating states agree to cast their electoral votes for the National Popular Vote winner as soon as enough states join to reach a 270-electoral vote majority.

The historical evolution and contemporary criticism of the Electoral College highlight fundamental concerns on its alignment with democratic principles, feeding an ongoing debate on whether it continues to serve its founding functions or whether a new method of presidential election is overdue for a contemporary America.

A sepia-toned photograph of the Founding Fathers gathered around a table, engaged in heated debate over the Electoral College

Mechanics of the Electoral College

On Election Day, voters across the United States cast their ballots not directly for presidential candidates but for electors who pledge to vote on their behalf in the Electoral College. These electors, whose numbers are tied to the sum of each state's Senators and Representatives in Congress, ultimately select the President and Vice President.

Following the state elections, chosen electors convene in their respective state capitals in December to officially cast their electoral votes. This process is a formality, as electors usually pledge to support their party's candidate if that candidate won the state's popular vote. Interestingly, while the U.S. Constitution dictates the existence of electors, it does not specify the exact proceedings for this voting, which has resulted in varied practices.

Each elector casts one vote for President and one for Vice President, which are recorded on separate ballots. This method of secret balloting aims to maintain elector discretion although 'faithless elector' occurrences are rare and have never impacted the end result of a presidential race.

After the voting by electors, the next crucial step is the counting and certification of electoral votes by Congress. This happens on January 6, following the election year, during a joint session of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Vice President, serving as the President of the Senate, oversees this significant event.

During this session, the certificates of electoral votes from each state are opened and presented in alphabetical order. Members of both chambers of Congress have the opportunity to object to the electoral votes. If both a Senator and a Representative challenge a state's results, the two chambers separately debate this issue. However, both houses of Congress must unanimously agree to reject an electoral vote—something that is highly rare.

Assuming no controversies demanding resolutions arise—or once resolved—the candidate who accumulates at least 270 electoral votes is officially declared the winner by the Vice President. This formal announcement ratifies the selection of the President-elect and Vice President-elect, with Inauguration Day set for January 20.

A series of photographs showing the various steps in the Electoral College voting process, from the casting of ballots to the counting of votes in Congress

Controversies and Criticisms

The core controversies of the Electoral College often spark heated debate among scholars, policymakers, and the public alike. Central to these disagreements is the winner-takes-all allocation used by almost all states. Critics argue that this method often leaves the 'losing' voters in a state effectively unrepresented in the Electoral College. For example, a candidate can win a state by a small margin in the popular vote but garner all the state's electoral votes, potentially sidelining half the voting population. This can lead to a significant disparity between the national popular vote and the Electoral College results, raising questions about the democratic integrity of the election process.

Indeed, the divergence between the Electoral College and the popular vote has led to instances where the presidential candidate who lost the popular vote still claimed victory through the Electoral College. Examples in modern history include the 2000 and 2016 elections, in which George W. Bush and Donald Trump, respectively, lost the popular vote but won the presidency due to Electoral College mathematics.1,2 Such situations have fueled arguments that the Electoral College may thwart the will of the majority of voters, leading to a government that lacks full democratic legitimacy by modern standards.

Adding another layer to these concerns are 'faithless electors.' These are electors who, contrary to expectations, do not vote for the candidate who won their state's popular vote. Although rare and yet to decisively impact the outcome of a presidential election, the very existence of faithless electors adds unpredictability to an already contentious system. It poses pivotal questions about electoral autonomy versus elector obligations, further complicating the debates around the Electoral College's role in democratic governance.

Additionally, concerns exist about the equal value of votes across different states. Because electoral votes are not strictly proportional to population, voters in less populated states wield comparatively more influence than those in densely populated states. This discrepancy can feel antithetical to principles of equal representation prevalent in democratic ideologies, where ideally each vote carries equal weight in influencing an election's outcome.

Therefore, despite the ingenious design and historical roots of the Electoral College within the U.S. Constitution, it raises significant concerns that threaten its current suitability. As such, calls for reform or replacement simmer within political discourse, propelled by these intricacies and contradictions that challenge its utility in ensuring a president who truly represents the majority's preference.

Proposed Reforms

One prominent reform initiative is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which posits a significant transformation in how electoral votes are allocated without necessitating a Constitutional amendment. Rather than abolishing the Electoral College, the NPVIC allows it to remain but works within its framework. States participating in the compact agree to award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote, regardless of the state-specific results. This Compact will take effect only when the total electoral votes of the member states exceed the crucial figure of 270—enough to secure the election of the president. As of now, states representing 196 electoral votes have joined the compact, indicating movement toward but not yet reaching this critical threshold.3

Another approach widely discussed involves amending the U.S. Constitution to abolish the Electoral College entirely, replacing it with a direct national popular vote. This method requires both a two-thirds majority vote in each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures—which demonstrates a formidable challenge, given the political diversity and varying interests across states. This level of consensus is complex to achieve as demonstrated by history and reflects the very brand of federalist balance the founding fathers aimed to secure.

Both ideas, while robust in advocating for enhanced democracy, must confront enduring queries related to campaign dynamics, minority interests, and regional diversity. Critics of shifting to a straightforward national popular vote argue that such a shift may direct candidates to focus primarily on large urban centers where the densest populations reside, potentially neglecting rural or less densely-populated areas. Proponents reply that a national campaign strategy under the popular vote would compel presidential contenders to appeal to a broader cross-section of Americans, thereby promoting more inclusivity in policy discourse and campaigning.

As these proposals make clear, debate around the Electoral College's reform or abolition inherently addresses broader questions about the nature of American democracy and the fundamental principles governing it. The contemplation of these reforms—be it through constitutional amendments or innovative compacts—reveals an ongoing commitment to perfecting a union that remains true to both its historical roots and its evolving democratic ideals. This ongoing dialectic underscores that while the Founding Fathers laid forth a visionary template, it is incumbent upon subsequent generations to recalibrate its mechanisms to better reflect the values and demographics of a modern nation.

Impact on Political Campaigns

Political campaigns in the United States are fundamentally shaped by the Electoral College, explaining why presidential candidates concentrate their efforts on a select group of battleground or swing states rather than engaging equally across all states. This focus primarily results from the winner-takes-all method of allocating electoral votes, which is used by all but two states, Maine and Nebraska. Here, the candidate receiving the majority of the popular vote in a state typically secures all of that state's electoral votes.

This system compels strategists to invest a disproportionate amount of time, money, and resources into states that could go either way—Democratic or Republican. States like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan often see a surge of campaign activity, including advertising spend, rallies, and targeted policies aimed at swaying an undecided electorate. Conversely, "safe" states with a history of swinging strongly Republican or Democrat receive considerably less attention beyond fundraising activities.

This tactical distribution of campaign resources has wider implications for political engagement across the country. It can lead to voter apathy in states considered safe, where the electorate may feel their vote holds less sway in tipping the balance of national results. By the same token, it can escalate election fervor in swing states, potentially giving a small pocket of voters an oversized influence on the outcome of the election.

Moreover, this strategy has spurred discussions about equity and representation in the democratic process. Critics argue that focusing only on swing states might lead to policy promises that cater to interests represented within these areas at the expense of broader national interests. This not only skews the democratic process but also places immense power in the hands of a few, thus making the national outcome dependent on regional issues and sentiments that might not mirror the overall will of the American populace.

Additionally, the Electoral College shapes campaign narratives in ways that deepen regional divides rather than fostering a cohesive national identity. Candidates may embrace rhetoric or adopt stances that resonate with key demographics within pivotal swing states, potentially inflaming partisan divides or overlooking urgent national issues that do not play as effectively in those areas.

In light of these issues, some critics argue for reforms that would lead presidential candidates to campaign for votes nationwide, respecting each vote equally irrespective of state identity. Such changes promise a campaign landscape that encourages candidates to build more inclusive platforms that address the concerns of a broader electorate.

Thus, while the Founding Fathers envisioned the Electoral College as a check against the unwielded voting population and as a balance between big and small states, its current manifestation continues to stir significant debate over its influence on American political and electoral strategies. Reflecting on these complex dynamics underscores the ongoing need to examine and possibly recalibrate election systems to ensure they accord with democratic principles of equality, representation, and fairness. These principles remain pivotal in making each citizen feel that their vote is not only counted but truly counts in shaping the governance of their country.

  1. Neale TH. The Electoral College: How It Works in Contemporary Presidential Elections. Congressional Research Service; 2020.
  2. Edwards GC III. Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America. 3rd ed. Yale University Press; 2019.
  3. Koza J, Fadem B, Grueskin M, et al. Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote. National Popular Vote Press; 2013.