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The Electoral College

The Electoral College System

Excerpted from The League of Women Voters of California Education Fund, Choosing the President - 1992 (New York: Lyons and Burford, 1992), p. 91-97.
Click here to go to the National League of Women Voters Homepage.

Copyright ©1992 by The League of Women Voters of California Education Fund.

The actual mechanism of electing the president and the vice president of the United States is a rather complicated process. The electoral college is one of the many compromises written into the t United States Constitution in 1787. The founding fathers devised the electoral college to elect the president but they did not anticipate the emergence of national political parties or a communications network able to bring presidential candidates before the entire electorate.

Providing that the president be chosen indirectly through the "electoral college" rather than directly
by the voters in November was one of the founders' hedges against "popular passion." In the beginning, the electors had very real powers to work their will. Now, their sole function is to confirm a decision made by the electorate six weeks earlier.

Under the Constitution, each state is authorized to choose electors for president and vice president, the number always being the same as the combined number of U.S. senators and representatives allotted to that state. With 100 senators and 435 representatives in the United States, plus three electors for the District of Columbia provided by the Twenty-third Amendment, the total electoral college vote is 538.

Makeup and operation of the electoral college itself are tightly defined by the Constitution, but the method of choosing electors is left to the states. In the beginning many states did not provide for popular election of the presidential electors. Today, however, electors are chosen by direct popular vote in every state. When voters vote for president, they are actually voting for the electors pledged to their presidential candidate. (Electors are named by state party organizations. Serving as an elector is considered an honor, a reward for faithful service.)

With the political parties in control of presidential politics, the function of the electoral college has changed drastically. Rather than having individuals seek to become electors and then vote for whomever they please for president, the parties have turned the process upside down by arranging slates of electors, all pledged to support the candidate nominated by the party.

In the earliest days of the electoral college, quite the opposite was true. Electors cast their votes for individual candidates rather than for party slates, with the majority winner being elected president and the runner-up, vice president. This made for some bizarre situations, as in 1796 when the Federalist John Adams, with 71 votes, became president and the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, with 68, vice president- roughly equivalent in modern times to an election in which Bush and Dukakis would end up as president and vice president. In 1800 Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, each won an identical number of electoral votes, forcing the election into the House of Representatives, which resolved it in Jefferson's favor. It was to avoid any similar occurrence that the Twelfth Amendment was passed in 1804. This amendment required the electors to cast two separate ballots, one for president and the other for vice president. This is the only constitutional change that has been made in the electoral college system, other than to add three electoral votes for the District of Columbia in 1961.

Presidential and vice presidential candidates of a party run as a team. In most of the states, it is the names of the candidates rather than the names of the electors that appear on the ballot; in the other states, both candidates and electors are identified. The victor in each state is determined by counting the votes for each slate of electors; the slate receiving the most votes (the plurality, not necessarily the majority of the votes cast) is declared the winner.

To be elected to the presidency a candidate must receive an absolute majority (270) of the electoral votes cast. If no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives picks the winner from the top three, with each state delegation in the House casting only one vote, regardless of its size. Only two U.S. elections have been decided this way (1800 and 1824).

The vice president is elected at the same time by the same indirect winner-take-all method that chooses the president, but the electors vote separately for the two offices. If no vice presidential candidate receives a majority, the Senate picks the winner from the top two, each senator voting as an individual. The Senate has not made the choice since 1836.

The Electoral College, Pro and Con

The electoral college mechanism has not lacked for critics over the years. The basic objection is that the system clearly has the potential to frustrate the popular will in the selection of a president and a vice president. Because of the aggregation of electoral votes by state, it is possible that a candidate might win the most popular votes but lose in the electoral college voting. This happened in 1824 (when the election was thrown into the House), in 1876 (when there were disputed electors from several states), and in 1888. The winner-take-all system literally means that the candidate team that wins most of the popular votes (the plurality vote winner) in a particular state gets all of the electoral votes in that state, and the loser gets none, even if the loss is by a slim popular-vote margin. Thus a candidate who fails to carry a particular state receives not a single electoral vote in that state for the popular votes received. Since presidential elections are won by electoral-not popular-votes, it is the electoral vote tally that election-night viewers watch for and that tells the tale.

Another problem cited by critics is the possibility of "faithless electors" who defect from the candidate to whom they are pledged. Most recently, in 1976, a Republican elector in the state of Washington cast his vote for Ronald Reagan instead of Gerald Ford, the Republican presidential candidate. Earlier, in 1972, a Republican elector in Virginia deserted Nixon to vote for the Libertarian party candidate. And in 1968, Nixon lost another Virginia elector, who bolted to George Wallace.

The main danger of faithless electors is that the candidate who wins the popular vote could wind up one or two votes short of a majority in the electoral college and could lose the election on a technicality. This prospect becomes more probable when there are third-party or independent candidates who could negotiate with electors before they vote.

Many see the apportioning of the electoral college votes by states as a basic flaw, because it gives each of the smaller states at least three electoral votes, even though on a straight population basis some might be entitled to only one or two.

Critics of the system also argue that the possibility that an election could be thrown into the House of Representatives is undemocratic. In such a case each state has a single vote, which gives the sparsely populated or small states equal weight with more populous states such as California or New York. The two occasions when it occurred (1800 and 1824) were marked by charges of "deals" and "corrupt bargains." In any event, giving each state one vote in the House of Representatives regardless of the number of people represented is not consistent with the widely accepted concept of one-person-one-vote. Also, one vote per state in the House of Representatives may not necessarily result in a choice that replicates the electoral vote winner in that state in November.

Those who argue in favor of retaining the present system state that there is too much uncertainty over whether any other method would be an improvement. They point out that many of the complaints about the electoral college apply just as well to the Senate and, to some extent, to the House. They fear that reform could lead to the dismantling of the federal system.

Another argument made by defenders of the electoral college is that the present method serves American democracy well by fostering a two-party system and thwarting the rise of splinter parties such as those that have plagued many European democracies. The winner-take-all system means that minor parties get few electoral votes and that a president who is the choice of the nation as a whole emerges. In the present system, splinter groups could not easily throw an election into the House. Supporters feel strongly that if the electors fail to agree on a majority president, it is in keeping with the federal system that the House of Representatives, voting as states, makes the selection.

Supporters also argue that the electoral college system democratically reflects population centers by giving urban areas electoral power; that is where the most votes are. Thus together, urban states come close to marshaling the requisite number of electoral votes to elect a president.

A final argument is that for the most part, the electoral college system has worked. No election in this century has been decided in the House of Representatives. Further, the winner's margin of votes is usually enhanced in the electoral vote-a mathematical happening that can make the winner in a divisive and close election seem to have won more popular support than he actually did. This is thought to aid the healing of election scars and help the new president in governing.

Proposals for Change

Discontent with the system was stimulated in the 1960s by the Wallace third-party movement and in 1980 by John Anderson's initially strong showing as an independent candidate with nationwide appeal. Also, the Supreme Court's one-person-one-vote ruling on legislative districts underscored the importance of equitable distribution of votes. A number of proposals for altering the way the president and the vice president are elected have been made. Most would require a constitutional amendment, though states can on their own change their state laws governing the way they choose electors.

One set of proposals looks toward keeping the electoral college but eliminating its winner-take-all features. This shift could be brought about by choosing most electors on a congressional district basis, with only two electors per state chosen statewide. A 1969 Maine law provides for this method, and similar legislation has been considered in several other states. Alternatively, the office of elector could be eliminated and the electoral votes of a state simply assigned to candidates on the basis of the popular vote each receives. Constitutional amendments to that effect have been introduced in Congress but none has passed. These changes might eliminate some distortion of the popular vote, but they would not answer the complaint that the people do not elect the president directly.

Former Senator Birch Bayh repeatedly introduced a constitutional amendment providing for direct election of the president and the vice president. Under the Bayh plan, candidates for president and vice president would be required to run together in each state and the District of Columbia, and voters would make their choices directly, without any intervening slate of electors. If the candidate team with the most votes received at least 40 percent of the nationwide popular vote, that pair would be declared elected; if no pair received that amount there would be a runoff election between the two top pairs.

Direct election of the president along the lines of the Bayh plan would effectively bring the one-person, one-vote principle to presidential elections. Its advocates claim that direct election would help the two-party system. Any dangers to the federal system, they argue, would be more than outweighed by the right of all the people of the United States to choose their two top elected officials directly. Opponents of direct election hold that this particular plan for change might necessitate the holding of two elections because of the runoff provision, thus making the presidential election process even more costly and drawn out than it is already. Following the defeat of the proposed amendment by the Senate in 1979, no further significant effort has been made to revive the plan.


An "elector" is simply a person who elects someone else. The term college refers to a decision-making group such as the College of Cardinals, which elects the pope.[RETURN TO TEXT]

For comprehensive discussions of the development and operations of the electoral college system--its pros and cons and possible reforms--see League of Women Voters of the United States, Who Should Elect the President?; Joseph Gorman, Elections: Electoral College Reform; and Lawrence D. Longley and Alan G. Brown, The Politics of the Electoral College. [RETURN TO TEXT]

In 1876, the House decided which of two disputed sets of electoral votes to accept from certain southern states. [RETURN TO TEXT]

Electoral Votes by State

Fom The League of Women Voters of California Education Fund, Choosing the President - 1992 (New York: Lyons and Burford, 1992), p. 121-2.
Copyright ©1992 by The League of Women Voters of California Education Fund.

Total: 538 Needed to Win: 270

19921984 1980CHANGE
New York333641-3
New Jersey151617-1
North Carolina141313+1
Virginia131212+ 1
Washington11109+ 1
South Carolina888
Arizona876+ 1
West Virginia566-1
New Mexico554
New Hampshire444
Rhode Island444
District of Columbia333
North Dakota333
South Dakota333
19921984 1980CHANGE


Last Modified on 14-Mar-97

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