The United States Electoral College is the electoral college which chooses the President and Vice President of the United States at the conclusion of each Presidential election. The Electoral College was established by Article Two, Section One of the U.S. Constitution, and meets every four years with electors from each state. The electoral process was modified in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment, and again in 1961 with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment.
For a historic overview of the U.S. Electoral College election maps, see U.S. presidential election maps.
How it works
Election for President of the United States and Vice President of the United States is indirect, for which voting takes place every four years on Election Day. Although ballots typically list the names of the presidential candidates, voters within the 50 states and the District of Columbia actually choose electors when they vote for President and Vice President. These electors in turn cast the official votes for those two offices.
In most states and in D.C., the plurality winner of the popular vote for President within that state receives all of the state's electors, while all other candidates receive none. Only in Maine and Nebraska does the election follow a model more closely based on Congressional Elections: For each congressional district in those two states, the plurality winner of that district receives one district elector ("Representative-like" elector, so to speak), while the two at-large electors ("Senator-like" electors) are given to the plurality winner of the whole state. This method has been used in Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996, though neither has ever split its electoral votes.
Each state's electors meet in their respective state capitals in December, 41 days following the election, at which time they cast their electoral votes. Thus the electoral college never meets as one body. The electoral votes are then sealed and sent to the President of the Senate (i.e. the sitting Vice President of the United States), who retains them until the new Congress convenes in January. At that time, the votes are opened and counted in the presence of both houses of Congress. The candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes for President becomes President, and the candidate who receives a majority of electoral votes for Vice President becomes Vice President.
If no candidate receives an absolute electoral majority for President, then the new House of Representatives is required to go into session immediately to vote for President. In this case, the top three electoral vote getters for President are the candidates for the House of Representatives to select from, and the House votes en-bloc by state for this purpose (that is, one vote per state, which is determined by the majority decision of the delegation from that state; if a state delegation is evenly split that state is considered as abstaining). This vote would be repeated if necessary until one candidate receives the votes of more than half the state delegations—at least 26 state votes, given the current number, 50, of states in the union.
If no candidate receives an absolute majority of electoral votes for Vice President, then the United States Senate must do the same, with the top two vote getters for that office as candidates. The Senate votes in the normal manner in this case, not by States. It is unclear if the sitting Vice President would be entitled to cast his usual tie-breaking vote if the Senate should be evenly split on the matter.
If the House of Representatives has not chosen a winner in time for the inauguration (noon on January 20), then the Constitution of the United States specifies that the new Vice President becomes Acting President until the House selects a President. If the winner of the Vice Presidential election is not known by then either, then under the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, the Speaker of the House of Representatives would become Acting President until the House selects a President or the Senate selects a Vice President.
It is unclear what would happen if a President has been selected but the Senate remains deadlocked on a Vice President past Inauguration Day. On the one hand, the Twelfth Amendment specifies that the Senate should choose the Vice President, and it does not admit of a time limit on the selection process. On the other hand, the Twenty-Third Amendment allows the President to nominate a Vice President if a vacancy should occur.
As of 2005, the House of Representatives has elected the President on two occasions, in 1801 and in 1825. The Senate has chosen the Vice President once, in 1837.
Alloting electors to the states
The number of electors assigned to each state is equal to the total number of Senators (always 2) and Representatives that the state has in Congress. No federal officer or employee, including Senators and Representatives, may serve as an elector, though electors may be elected state officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with a Presidential candidate. With the adoption of the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1961, the District of Columbia is treated as a state for purposes of electoral votes, but can in no event choose more electors than the least populous state (however that latter clause does not currently make any difference; even if it did not exist, there would not be enough population in the District by a wide margin to give it any more than 3 electors).
There are currently 538 electoral votes available in each presidential election (100 Senators + 435 Representatives + 3 votes for D.C. = 538 electoral votes). Therefore, candidates must receive a majority of 270 electoral votes to become President and Vice President. In theory even in a pure two-party race, a candidate could win the election by receiving only 23% of all popular votes, if these were distributed in an ideal way (for him/her)—i.e. if he won enough small states by the narrowest possible margin and got no votes at all in the larger states. The fact that there is an even number of electoral votes available since the passing of the 23rd Amendment makes a 269/269 tie conceivable, although none has occurred yet. In that case the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives even though only two candidates received any electoral votes.
In most states, the names of the electors do not appear on the ballot at all; instead, a notation on the ballot indicates that voters are selecting the "electors for" followed by the names of the candidates for President and for Vice President. All but two states (Maine and Nebraska) use a winner-take-all system. The candidate with a plurality of votes gains all of the state's electors. The two exceptions allot the electors to areas within the state. In many states, the electors are legally free to cast their votes for anyone they choose, although in some states to vote for someone other than their pledged candidate is a misdemeanor, in others a felony, and in a few it is merely illegal without penalty.
In practice, however, electors very rarely vote for a candidate they are not pledged to (as they are chosen by the political parties specifically for voting for that candidate), except as a form of protest vote. Individuals choosing to do this are often referred to as "faithless electors" about which, more below. It is uncommon to know in advance that an elector may be inclined to vote in such a fashion, and such deviations usually come as a surprise. Of course, if an Electoral College tie were looming on the horizon after Election Day, more electors might see a reason to switch sides, simply to avoid the election being thrown into the House of Representatives.
Scholars continue to debate the reasons for the adoption of the Electoral College. Some believe it was created to protect small states. Others believe that the Founding Fathers intended to create a system of indirect election whereby the electors would come to a carefully considered decision to nominate a selection of good candidates and then the House of Representatives would again make a careful consideration of the names presented. Others still believe the system of electing the President was given little thought beyond a desire to have George Washington as the first President, pointing in particular to the extremely casual way in which the Vice President was selected, and that Congress was intended to be the most important part of the Federal government.
Still others hold that it was devised as a compromise between the election of a President by the states and by the Congress. Initially the electors were selected by the state legislatures, and it was not until later that states started holding a popular poll for the presidential elections to determine how they would cast their votes. Yet another theory contends that the Framers strongly opposed the development of political parties, as evidenced by the total absence of any reference to parties in the Constitution, and were aware of the difficulties in mass communication, and were attempting to devise a system that would function well with neither cheap, instantaneous, nationwide communication nor a strong political party system.
The Electoral College may have been implemented to negotiate compromises in cases of a split vote where each state was pushing its own native son. The U.S. presidential primary and the emergence of a two-party system has largely rendered this historical. One lasting theory is that the Electoral College helps to soften the effect of votes from densely populated centers (major U.S. cities and the District of Columbia) which may steer away from the concerns of the rest of the country. Others have noted that the Electoral College enabled the Founding Fathers to deftly incorporate the Connecticut Compromise and three-fifths compromise into the system of choosing the President and Vice President, thereby sparing the convention further acrimony over the issue of state representation.
Regardless of why the system was chosen, the term "electoral college" is not used in the U.S. Constitution, and it wasn't until the early 1800s that it came into general usage as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for President and Vice President. It was first written into Federal law in 1845, and today the term appears in 3 U.S.C. section 4, in the section heading and in the text as "college of electors."
Section 1, Article II of the Constitution says, "Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector." It then goes on to describe how the electors vote for President.
Originally, each elector voted for two persons, with no designation for President or Vice President. The person receiving the greatest number of votes (provided that such a number was a majority of electors) would be President, while the individual who was in second place became Vice President (and did not need the backing of the majority of electors; in theory the Vice President could have been elected with the support of as few as two electors if every other elector either cast the sole vote for a candidate, voted for a virtually unanimous choice for President or did not cast their second vote). If no one had received a majority of votes, then the House of Representatives would choose between the five highest vote-getters, with each state casting one vote. In such a case, the person who received the highest number of votes but was not chosen President would become Vice President. If there was ever a tie for second, then the Senate would choose the Vice President.
Tally of electoral votes for the 1800 Presidential election, dated February 11, 1801.
The original plan, while working extremely well in the absence of political parties and organized presidential campaigns, broke down almost immediately once they developed. In 1796, for instance, rumors of conspiracies led to some Federalist electors only using one of their two votes so that their Presidential candidate John Adams came in first, but the Democrat-Republican candidate for President Thomas Jefferson placed second. Thus, the President and Vice President were from different parties. Although a situation like that is arguably not a problem, the situation that occurred in 1800 was most certainly a problem: Republicans (that is, the 18th- and early 19th-century party, later known as Democratic Republicans, that eventually became the modern Democratic party) Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied the vote. Jefferson was the intended presidential contender, while Burr was the Vice Presidential one. However, electors did not differentiate between the two, nor could they under the system of the time, and all electors supporting them cast one vote for each. The electors for the Federalists, however, arranged it so that one elector voted for the Federalist presidential candidate but not for the Vice Presidential candidate. They voted instead for another person altogether. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which was controlled by the Federalists. The House voted 35 times, with Alexander Hamilton offering his support to Thomas Jefferson with the condition that Jefferson support certain Federalist policies and office-holders. Jefferson won on the thirty-sixth ballot after Delaware's only Representative, James Bayard —a Burr supporter—abstained in exchange for the terms Hamilton had originally offered. Burr became Vice President. For this, and numerous other reasons, Burr held a grudge against Hamilton, whom he later killed in a duel.
To address the problem of the 1800 election, the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed. It made some minor and major changes to the Constitution. First, electors would no longer cast two ballots for President. Instead, they would cast one vote for President and a separate vote for Vice President. The individual receiving a majority of votes in a particular election would be elected. If no one received a majority in the presidential election, then the House of Representatives would choose between the top three, again voting by state. Similarly, the Senate chooses between the top two in the case of the Vice President. Under the new rules, the House of Representatives did elect the President on one more occasion: the 1824 four-way race between Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay resulted in no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes. The House elected Adams on the first ballot.
Under the provisions of the Constitution there is no requirement for a state to poll its voters. The state legislature can in theory appoint the electors as it likes, and, until 1860, South Carolina did just this. Furthermore, in 1788 the concept of "democracy" was widely seen as analogous to mob-rule, while the idea of political parties was equally frowned upon, and so the idea of a directly elected head of state was anathema to many. The Federalist Papers suggest that it was commonly assumed by the Founding Fathers that most Presidents would be selected by the House of Representatives, and the order of the articles of Constitution, in which Congress is established in Article I and the presidency in Article II, supports this view.
On 157 occasions from 1796–2004, presidential electors have cast their vote in a different manner than that prescribed by the popular election results for the state or district they represent. Of those, 71 votes were changed because the original candidate died before the elector was able to cast a vote. Three votes were not cast at all when Electors chose to abstain from casting their Electoral vote for any candidate. The remaining 83 were changed by the elector's personal interest or perhaps by accident. Usually, the faithless electors act alone. An exception was in 1836 when 23 Virginia electors changed their vote together. Still, no faithless elector has ever changed the outcome of any election.
There are laws to punish faithless electors in 24 states. While no faithless elector has ever been punished, the constitutionality of state pledge laws was brought before the Supreme Court in 1952 (Ray v. Blair , 343 US 214). The court ruled in favor of state's right to legally require electors to vote as pledged, as well as remove electors who refuse to pledge. As stated in the ruling, electors are acting as a function of the state, not the federal government. Therefore, states have the right to govern electors.
Recent incidents of faithless electors include:
2004 election: An unnamed Minnesota elector, pledged for Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards, cast his/her presidential vote for "John Ewards" (sic), apparently accidentally. (All of Minnesota's electors cast their vice-presidential ballots for John Edwards.) Minnesota's electors cast secret ballots, so unless one of the electors claims responsibility, it is unlikely that the identity of the faithless elector will ever be known.
2000 election: D.C. elector Barbara Lett-Simmons, pledged for Democrats Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, cast no electoral votes, protesting what she described as the federal district's "colonial status."
1988 election: West Virginia elector Margaret Leach , pledged for Democrats Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen, instead of casting her votes for the candidates in their positions on the national ticket, cast her presidential vote for Bentsen and her vice-presidential vote for Dukakis.
1976 election: Washington state elector Mike Padden , pledged for Republican Gerald Ford and Bob Dole, cast his presidential electoral vote for Ronald Reagan, who had challenged Ford for the Republican nomination. He cast his vice-presidential vote, as pledged, for Dole.
1972 election: Virginia elector Roger MacBride, pledged for Republicans Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, cast his electoral votes for Libertarian candidates John Hospers and Theodora Nathan. MacBride's vote for Nathan was the first electoral vote cast for a woman in U.S. history.
1968 election: North Carolina elector Lloyd W. Bailey , pledged for Republicans Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, cast his votes for American Independent Party candidates George Wallace and Curtis LeMay
1960 election: Oklahoma elector Henry D. Irwin , pledged for Republicans Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., cast his presidential electoral vote for independent candidate Harry Flood Byrd (also supported by 15 "unpledged" Democratic delegates). Unlike other delegates who voted for Byrd for president, Irwin cast his vice-presidential electoral vote for Barry Goldwater.
1956 election: Alabama elector W. F. Turner , pledged for Democrats Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver, cast his votes for Walter Burgwyn Jones and Herman Talmadge.
1948 election: Tennessee elector Preston Parks , pledged for Democrats Harry Truman and Alben Barkley, cast his votes for States' Rights Democratic Party candidates Strom Thurmond and Fielding Wright.
There are a total of 538 electoral votes. Electoral votes for each state are determined decennially by the United States Census (see also United States Congressional Apportionment). For each state the number is two more than the number of Representatives that the state has in Congress. Thus the number of electoral votes per state is two plus a number proportional to the population, determined by the Method of Equal Proportions. The 23rd Amendment gives the District of Columbia the number of electoral votes that it would receive if it were a state, or the smallest number of electoral votes of any state, whichever is smaller. The electoral vote distribution for the 2004 and 2008 elections is as follows.
California - 55
Texas - 34
New York - 31
Florida - 27
Illinois - 21
Pennsylvania - 21
Ohio - 20
Michigan - 17
Georgia - 15
New Jersey - 15
North Carolina - 15
Virginia - 13
Massachusetts - 12
Indiana - 11
Missouri - 11
Tennessee - 11
Washington - 11
Arizona - 10
Maryland - 10
Minnesota - 10
Wisconsin - 10
Alabama - 9
Colorado - 9
Louisiana - 9
Kentucky - 8
South Carolina - 8
Connecticut - 7
Iowa - 7
Oklahoma - 7
Oregon - 7
Arkansas - 6
Kansas - 6
Mississippi - 6
Nebraska - 5
Nevada - 5
New Mexico - 5
Utah - 5
West Virginia - 5
Hawaii - 4
Idaho - 4
Maine - 4
New Hampshire - 4
Rhode Island - 4
Alaska - 3
Delaware - 3
D.C. - 3
Montana - 3
North Dakota - 3
South Dakota - 3
Vermont - 3
Wyoming - 3
Pros and Cons
Supporters of the college
More fairness for rural America and greater diversity of represented groups
Supporters of the college claim that the system protects rural communities and smaller states from the interests of urban centers and large states. Without the Electoral College, with the vote based on majority rule, it would be possible to win a strict majority of votes by campaigning only in a few densely-populated areas of the country. A candidate could theoretically focus resources, time, and political capital solely on winning votes in a handful of large cities in order to win the election. It is felt that this pressure would lead to voters in the sparsely populated West being completely ignored. Thus, the intent of the college is to favor a candidate whose appeal is more broadly distributed on a geographical basis across the nation.
In the event of an extremely close election, such as the 2000 presidential election, having the Electoral College makes doing a recount much easier, since it may only be necessary to recount in a single state, rather than the entire nation.
Less incentive for election fraud
Electoral College supporters also believe that the system serves to dampen the consequences of potential election fraud. Fraudulent votes manufactured in one state can only affect the distribution of that state's limited number of electoral votes, any votes beyond a majority in that state have no further effect nationwide. In a pure direct election any number of fraudulent votes would have a direct impact on the results nationwide.
Detractors of the college
U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and Arlen Specter both called for the abolition of the Electoral College in 2000 after the electoral debacle; however, this motion did not reach fruition.
Most electoral reform plans in the US include ways to abolish the College.
Disenfranchisement and inequality of voters
Supporters of direct election argue that it would give everyone an equal vote, regardless of what state they live in, and oppose giving disproportionately amplified voting power to voters in small states. In contrast, the Electoral College disenfranchises those voters in every state who cast their votes for the candidate receiving fewer votes in that state. And it also partly disenfranchises voters in larger states by reducing their proportional contribution to the final election result. For example, in 1988 the combined voting age population of the six least populous states (Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) plus the District of Columbia was 3,119,000, and carrying 21 Electoral votes between them. The State of Florida, which had 9,614,000 persons of voting age carried exactly the same number of Electoral College votes: 21. Each Floridian's potential vote, then, carried about one third the weight of a potential vote in the other states listed.
In the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 the loser of the popular vote became president. In 1976, if Gerald Ford had won 5,500 more votes in Ohio he would have been elected, despite having over a million votes fewer than Carter.
Focus on Large Swing States
While attention is often given to the granting of a disproportionate number of electoral votes to smaller states, often overlooked is another part of the electoral system: most states use a winner-take-all system, in which the candidate with the most votes in that state receives all of the state's electoral votes. Candidates will pay more attention to larger states, as these carry more electoral votes, in particular swing states. California, Texas and New York, in spite of having the largest populations, are usually considered safe for a particular party, and will therefore be ignored by candidates (except for fundraising efforts). Likewise, the District of Columbia and Wyoming, the smallest 'states', will also be ignored, as they not only contain few electoral votes, but are almost certain to be won by the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Ironically, this is the exact opposite of the claim that the electoral college is fairer in that it gives more power to smaller states.
Paradoxical effects of the House size
One little-known (and undesirable) quality of the Electoral College system is the fact that in close elections, the exact number of seats in the House of Representatives becomes a crucial factor in deciding the outcome. The current House size of 435 seats was fixed by federal law in 1910, not by the constitution, and Congress could change it at will. Since the number of Senators is fixed by the constitution to exactly twice the number of States, enlarging the House would lessen the advantage of smaller states in Presidential elections, while downsizing it would strengthen their advantage. If we take the popular votes cast at the Election of 2000 and the population figures of the 1990 U.S. Census with the consequential apportionment of House seats to the states as a given, George W. Bush would have won the election for all House sizes less than 491, while Al Gore would have won for all house sizes greater than 598 (except at 655, which gives a tie). In between those two numbers, the winner unsystematically oscillates back and forth many times -- of the 105 house sizes between those numbers, there is a 269/269 tie 23 times, Bush wins 53 times and Gore wins 29 times. The effect is comparable to the Alabama paradox which caused states to actually lose House seats by increasing the House size in certain circumstances, and which led to the introduction of a more mathematically sound method of reapportionment in the late 19th century.
Untrue hidden assumption of local uniformity
It is also worth pointing out that the Electoral College assumes that voters within states vote monolithically, when in fact this is not the case. Many states are often deeply divided over how to vote in a Presidential election. A key element of democracy is that voters disagree among themselves on what they consider their interests, and this happens within states as well as between states. Thus, for example, in the 2000 election, New Hampshire (a small state) gave 48% of its votes to Bush, and 47% to Gore. According to the pro-Electoral College model, as a small state, New Hampshire necessarily voted for its own local interests in supporting Bush. This in itself skews the campaign process, as candidates focus their efforts on states whose electoral votes are in question, rather than individual voters whose ballots are in play, and may contribute to broader sectional divisions.
Unfair disadvantage for third parties
Opponents also argue that the method by which most states allot their electoral votes tends to favor a two-party system. Even when a third-party candidate receives a significant number of popular votes, he may not receive a plurality in any state and may not garner even a single electoral vote, as was the case of Ross Perot, who won 18% of the popular vote in the 1992 elections. Proponents usually counter by stating that a third-party candidate with enough votes to win will usually be able to garner some electoral votes, and these electors might even hold the balance of power.
Elections ending up decided by Congress
Another aspect of the electoral college with which its detractors find fault is the situation that could arise if no candidate won a majority of electoral votes. In several elections of the Twentieth century, 1912, 1948, 1960, and 1968, third party candidates won electoral votes. It is certainly within the realm of possibility in a three-way race that no candidate would reach the magic 270 number. Even in a two-way race, it is possible for neither candidate to win a majority (by tying 269-269). If no candidate hit 270, the election would go to the House, where the Constitution provides that each state delegation would have one vote, regardless of its population. This gives small states an even stronger advantage than they have in the College. If the House election tied, or if enough delegations split evenly, the situation would become more complicated. In this situation, section 3 of the 20th amendment would take control. Assuming that the Senate were able to choose a Vice President-Elect, he would become the acting President until the Congress could devise a method for choosing a President. If the Senate were unable to choose a Vice President-Elect, then the Congress would have to determine a method for choosing a President-Elect and a Vice President-Elect.
Supporters of an Electoral College with modified rules
Some argue that their greatest objections to the electoral college can be acceptably mitigated by modifying the rules by which votes are allocated.
The primary proposal of this type is for states to implement a proportional vote system. Under such a system, electors would be selected in proportion to the votes cast for their candidate or party, rather than being selected to represent only the plurality vote. As an example, consider the 2000 election, in which the George W. Bush / Richard Cheney (Republican) and Albert Gore Jr. / Joseph Lieberman (Democrat) tickets were the primary contenders, with the Ralph Nader / Winona LaDuke (Green) ticket taking a small but noteworthy minority. In California, the approximate proportion of votes for these tickets was 41.65 percent Bush/Cheney, 53.45 percent Gore/Lieberman, and 3.82 percent Nader/LaDuke. Under the current system, all 54 electoral votes were for Gore/Lieberman. Under a simple proportional system, the votes might be distributed as 23 Bush/Cheney, 29 Gore/Lieberman, and 2 Nader/LaDuke.
The state of Colorado voted down an initiative on its 2004 ballot, Amendment 36, which would have instituted a system of proportional allocation of electors beginning immediately with the 2004 Colorado electoral college members. The argument in favor was that of a fairer allocation. The argument against it was that it would end Colorado's status as a swing state. Instead of candidates vying for all nine of Colorado's votes, they would be going for one, assuming the most likely outcome of a 5-4 split one way or the other.
A major problem with dividing electoral votes proportionally is that it would be harder for a candidate to achieve a majority of the electoral vote, since a proportional system would enable a third party candidate to win electoral votes. If this system had been used in 1992 and 1996, and all electors had voted as pledged, there would have been no winner at all, and the House of Representatives would have chosen the president, whilst the Senate selected the Vice-President. In 1996 Robert Dole would almost certainly have been the House winner, and Jack Kemp the Senate, as well, despite receiving significantly fewer votes than Bill Clinton and Al Gore. In 2000, Al Gore would have received 269 electoral votes, George W. Bush 263, and Ralph Nader 6. If all electors voted as pledged, the Presidential race would have gone to the House, and Bush likely would have won, but the Vice Presidential deicision in the Senate would have likely split 51-50 for Lieberman, with Al Gore casting the deciding vote.
Other observers argue that the current electoral rules of Maine and Nebraska should be extended nationwide. As previously noted, the winner in those two states is only guaranteed two electoral votes, with the winner of each Congressional district in the state receiving one electoral vote. Using the California example again, Gore won 33 of the state's Congressional districts and the state overall, while Bush won 19 Congressional districts. The state's electoral votes would then have gone 35-19 for Gore.
However, this kind of allocation would still make it possible for the loser of the popular vote to become president. If every state used the Maine-Nebraska system, George W. Bush would have won in 2000 by an even larger electoral college majority than he did with winner-take-all. Also, dividing electoral votes by House district winners would create yet another incentive for partisan gerrymandering. In 1960, if a district system had been used Richard Nixon would have been elected, despite losing the popular vote.
Another problem with this suggestion is that it would actually further increase the advantage of small states. In winner-take-all, the small states' disproportionally high number of electors is partially offset by the fact that large states with their big electoral blocks are such a highly desirable boon to a candidate that large swing states actually receive much more attention during the campaign than smaller states. In proportional representation or Maine-Nebraska, this advantage of the large states would be gone.
Yet another problem with both Maine-Nebraska and proportional representation is that even if it is considered superior as a nationwide system, winner-take-all generally maximizes the power of an individual state and thus while it might be in the interest of the nation, it is not in the interest of the state to adopt any other system. Since the U.S. constitution gives the states the power to chose their method of appointing the electors, nationwide Maine-Nebraska without a constitutional amendment mandating it seems unlikely, and the passage of such an amendment seems equally unlikely since the House delegations of the largest states (against whose interests such a system would be), taken together, easily surpass the one third of the House size that is needed to block a constitutional amendment.
Abolishing the non-proportional electors ("drop two")
Another proposed reform is to make the number of electors that each state has the same as its number of Representatives (effectively the same as the current system, except taking two electoral votes from each state). This plan, sometimes called "drop two," would still over-represent the very smallest states -- those who receive their one seat in the House only because every state receives at least one --, but would make the over-representation much less significant. If such a system had been in place in 2000, Al Gore would have won in the Electoral College 225-211.
Proponents of this suggestion say that this will preserve the Electoral College's benefits and make the system more democratic at the same time. Others say this will remove the extra power given to the small states intended to make elections fairer.
Squeezing a direct popular election out of the current system
A popular election could occur without amending the constitution. If a sufficient number of states chose their electors by national popular vote rather than state popular vote, then a national popular vote would occur in practice. For example, the eleven largest states, controlling over 270 electoral votes among them, could guarantee that the presidency always goes to the winner of the national popular vote, merely by changing state election law. Constitutional objections to a state choosing its electors by national popular vote include that doing so would create an interstate compact without the consent of Congress (which is unconstitutional) and that no state may allow other states to choose its electors.
Majority vs. plurality
The Electoral College requires a majority vote in order for a victor to be declared. In the case of a hypothetical direct election with multiple candidates, the question of majority versus plurality comes into play. In many recent American presidential elections (1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, and 2000), no single candidate achieved an absolute majority of the popular vote. Some nations with direct presidential voting, such as France, have a second round of voting if no candidate achieves a majority of votes in the first round; in the second round, the election is restricted to the two candidates with the highest number of votes. Some have argued that the French system creates problems of its own; it is possible that the initial vote becomes divided up between so many candidates that someone who is highly undesirable to most voters can make it to the second round of voting, as occurred in 2002 with the rise of candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen to the runoff election. One solution to this problem would be to implement an alternative election system, such as instant runoff voting, approval voting, or condorcet voting. However critics of those methods contend that they are too difficult to understand for a sizable portion of the population, and would thus result in many people casting spoiled ballots or ballots that do not correspond to what they actually want to vote for.
Weighted direct voting
Another possibility is to have direct voting, but give smaller states more weight per vote to more or less match the current small-state favoritism. Small states may be more motivated to support a constitutional voting system change as long as they keep their favoritism. For example, an individual in a populous state may be assigned 0.91 votes, while somebody from a small state may be assigned 1.08 votes. Under this system, candidates would have more incentive to campaign in all states. However since such a system would make the small state advantage more directly obvious to the general public than the current system, it is unlikely to receive support in the large states. In addition, many electoral college opponents would consider this system contradictory to the entire point of abolishing the electoral college: the principle of one person, one vote.
Despite the difficulty of amending the Constitution, it appears that large majorities of Americans favor a direct popular vote. In a 1968 Gallup survey, 81% of Americans favored a direct popular vote, 12% favored retention, and 7% had no opinion. In 1992, pollsters asked Americans this question, "If Perot runs, there is a chance that no presidential candidate will get enough electoral votes to win. If that happens, the Constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to decide who will be the next President. Do you think that is a fair way to choose the President, or should the Constitution be changed?" 31% said it was a fair way, and 61% said the Constitution should be changed.
By some counts, there have been over seven hundred proposed amendments to the Constitution to change, or abolish, the electoral college. In 1969, in the wake of an election where a third party candidate almost sent the election to the House of Representatives, an amendment to do away with the electoral college passed the House of Representatives with 83% of the vote, 338-70. Richard Nixon favored the amendment, and so did three-quarters of state legislatures, Republican Senator Howard Baker denounced the electoral college with "Any system which favors one citizen over another or one state over another is ... inconsistent with the most fundamental concept of a democratic society." Predictably, the amendment failed in the Senate; however, it was not small states who blocked the reform but rather Southern states, who saw the electoral college as part of states' rights.
Regardless of how opponents of the system feel, it is unlikely that the system will soon be changed. Changing the system requires amending the Constitution, and amending the Constitution requires ratification of three-fourths of the States. It is commonly thought that smaller states would be unlikely to ratify such an amendment, as their votes would count for less under direct popular vote than under the current electoral college system.
Some believe abolishing the electoral college would strengthen third parties. However, this is unlikely. Under an electoral college, third parties may thrive in noncompetitive states because voters do not have to worry that voting for a third party would cause the "least bad " major party candidate to lose. Under a strictly democratic system, every vote in every state might be the decisive one. A greater impediment to third parties is the plurality winner-take-all system.
Debate over the merit of the Electoral College came to a head after the 2000 Presidential election, with some politicians, such as Senator Hillary Clinton, calling for a Constitutional amendment abolishing the system. Clinton conceded that the chances of enacting such a change were slim, and the idea has not been vigorously pursued since the 2000 election.
The Electoral College - by William C. Kimberling, Deputy Director FEC Office of Election Administration
League of Women Voters - A web page from the League of Women Voters advocating direct election and the abolition of the electoral college
The Electoral College Zine - A web site supporting retention of the Electoral College, including an article giving a mathematical analysis(See below)
Math Against Tyranny - an article describing MIT researcher Alan Natapoff's analysis favoring the electoral college system
Outcomes of Presidential Elections and the House Size - The Neubauer-Zeitlin analysis shows that the winner of the 2000 presidential election was determined in 1941 when the House size was fixed at 435. Had the House size been set at 500, then Gore would have won the 2000 election.
US presidential electoral system - A mathematical analysis of the US presidential system, showing that this system is biased toward populous states, giving a citizen of California roughly four times more power than one of Montana in the choice of the US president.
Electoral College Vote Calculator - A tool for determining which combinations of states a candidate can win to become President.
Origin and History - shorter version of the origin and history of the US Electoral College.
Last updated: 10-22-2005 09:57:11