The Electoral College

In less than a week we are going to hold another election for president. If the past serves as any sort of guide there is going to be a big discussion about the significance of the popular vote and The Electoral College.

Since some people are unfamiliar with what it is and how it works I thought that it might be useful to provide some information about it.

Here is a procedural guide to the Electoral College as provided by The National Archives.

“The Electoral College was established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by popular vote. The electors are a popularly elected body chosen by the States and the District of Columbia on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (November 4, 2008). The Electoral College consists of 538 electors (one for each of 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators; and 3 for the District of Columbia by virtue of the 23rd Amendment). Each State’s allotment of electors is equal to the number of House members to which it is entitled plus two Senators. The decennial census is used to reapportion the number of electors allocated among the States.

The slates of electors are generally chosen by the political parties. State laws vary on the appointment of electors. The States prepare a list of the slate of electors for the candidate who receives the most popular votes on a Certificate of Ascertainment. The Governor of each State prepares seven original Certificates of Ascertainment. The States send one original, along with two authenticated copies or two additional originals to the Archivist of the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) by registered mail. The Certificates of Ascertainment must be submitted as soon as practicable, but no later than the day after the meetings of the electors, which occur on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (December 15, 2008). The Archivist transmits the originals to NARA’s Office of the Federal Register (OFR). The OFR forwards one copy to each House of Congress and retains the original.

The electors meet in each State on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (December 15, 2008). A majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President and Vice President. No Constitutional provision or Federal law requires electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their State.

The electors prepare six original Certificates of Vote and annex a Certificate of Ascertainment to each one. Each Certificate of Vote lists all persons voted for as President and the number of electors voting for each person and separately lists all persons voted for as Vice President and the number of electors voting for each person.

If no presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution provides for the presidential election to be decided by the House of Representatives. The House would select the President by majority vote, choosing from the three candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes. The vote would be taken by State, with each State delegation having one vote. If no Vice Presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the Senate would select the Vice President by majority vote, with each Senator choosing from the two candidates who received the greatest number of electoral votes.”

Here is a link to some FAQs about the whole process. I’ll grab a few excerpts that might be of interest.

“What is the difference between the winner-takes-all rule and proportional voting, and which States follow which rule?

There are 48 States that have a winner-takes-all rule for the Electoral College. In these States, whichever candidate receives a majority of the vote, or a plurality of the popular vote (less than 50 percent but more than any other candidate) takes all of the State’s electoral votes.

Only two States, Nebraska and Maine, do not follow the winner-takes-all rule. In those States, there could be a split of electoral votes among candidates through the State’s system for proportional allocation of votes.For example, Maine has four electoral votes and two Congressional districts. It awards one electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the state-wide, “at-large” vote. It is possible for Candidate A to win the first district and receive one electoral vote, Candidate B to win the second district and receive one electoral vote, and Candidate C, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large electoral votes. Although this is a possible scenario, it has not actually occurred in recent elections.


How is it possible for the electoral vote to produce a different result than the nation-wide popular vote?

It is important to remember that the President is not chosen by a nation-wide popular vote. The electoral vote totals determine the winner, not the statistical plurality or majority a candidate may have in the nation-wide vote totals. Electoral votes are awarded on the basis of the popular vote in each State.

Note that 48 out of the 50 States award electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis (as does DC). For example, all 55 of California’s electoral votes go to the winner of that State election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.

In a multi-candidate race where candidates have strong regional appeal, as in 1824, it is quite possible that a candidate who collects the most votes on a nation-wide basis will not win the electoral vote. In a two-candidate race, that is less likely to occur. But it did occur in the Hayes/Tilden election of 1876 and the Harrison/Cleveland election of 1888 due to the statistical disparity between vote totals in individual State elections and the national vote totals. This also occured in the 2000 presidential election, where George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.”

The Library of Congress also provides some useful information. You might want to check it out here. For those who don’t feel like clicking over here is an excerpt that is worth looking at:

“Until 1804, electors cast votes for candidates without saying whether they were voting for president or vice president. This system crashed and burned in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes. It took the House 36 votes before the tie was broken and Jefferson took office as President.

The 12th Amendment to the Constitution made sure that electors designate their votes for president and vice president. But, the 12th Amendment leaves in place a tie breaking system by which the House of Representatives breaks a tie on presidential electoral votes and the Senate breaks a tie on vice presidential electoral votes. This leaves open an intriguing possibility. Someday a President and Vice President from different political parties could be forced to serve together! What problems do you predict might occur from such an arrangement? Does it offer any benefits? In 1796, Federalist John Adams was elected the nation’s second president, and Thomas Jefferson, of the Republican party, was elected vice president. How did these men work together? How did their political differences affect their leadership?

In recent elections, the electoral college has voted presidents into office by extremely slim margins, as in the case of John Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon. Electors have failed to vote for the candidates to whom they were pledged, as in the case of the elector who jumped from Michael Dukakis’ ticket to that of Lloyd Bentsen. And William Jefferson Clinton did not win more than 50% of the popular vote in the three-way presidential race of 1992. Clinton did, however, win the electoral vote and become president.”

Crossposted here.

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