Understanding the US Electoral College System

02 Nov 2012

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The United States founding fathers had mooted the Electoral College idea in the Constitution as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens. As a process, the Electoral College consists of the selection of the electors at a meeting where they vote for the President and Vice President, and the counting of the votes by Congress.

In total, the Electoral College consists of 538 electors, but a majority of 270 votes is required to elect the President. A state’s entitled allotment of electors equals the number of members in its Congressional delegation: one for each member in the House of Representatives plus two for the Senators.

However, the Constitutional Convention had considered several plausible methods in the choice of a president. One of such ideas was to have the Congress choose the President. But the idea was rejected because some felt that making such a choice would be too divisive an issue and leave too many hard feelings in the Congress. Some also felt that such a procedure would invite unseemly political bargaining, corruption, and perhaps even interference from foreign powers. Yet, there were those who felt that such an arrangement would upset the balance of power between the legislature and executive.

The second idea was to have the State legislatures select the president. Again, this idea was turned down for fears that a president so beholden to the State legislatures might permit them to erode federal authority and thus undermine the whole idea of a federation.

A third idea was to have the president elected by a direct popular vote. Direct election was rejected not because the framers of the Constitution doubted public intelligence but rather because they feared that without sufficient information about candidates from outside their states, people would naturally vote for a “favorite son” from their own State or region. At worst, no president would emerge with a popular majority sufficient to govern the whole country. At best, they reasoned that the choice of the president would always be decided by the largest, most populous States with little regard for the smaller ones.

But in the end, a committee of 11 in the Constitutional Convention proposed an indirect election of the president through a College of Electors. The function of the College of Electors in choosing the president can be likened to that in the Roman Catholic Church of the College of Cardinals selecting the Pope. The original idea was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.

In the Electoral College system, the states serve as the Centurial groups and the number of votes per state is determined by the size of each state’s congressional delegation. Thus, there was a first and second design.

The first design, though elaborate, it was also a clever option since the system is designed to function without political parties and campaigns while at the same time maintaining the balances and satisfying the fears in play at the time. The first design lasted through only four presidential elections. While this went on, political parties had begun to emerge. Ironically, people who had publicly condemned the idea of parties had nevertheless, built them privately. Good enough, the idea of political parties had gained respectability through the persuasive writings of such political philosophers as Edmund Burke and James Madison.

But the shortfalls of the first design automatically begot the second idea. One of the accidental results of the development of political parties was that in the presidential election of 1800, the Electors of the Democratic-Republican Party gave Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr an equal number of votes. The tie was later resolved by the House of Representatives but in Jefferson’s favour. This was after 36 tries and some serious political under-dealings that were considered inappropriate. And since such bargaining was what the Electoral College was meant to prevent, the Congress and the states adopted the 12th Amendment to the Constitution by September of 1804.

To prevent tie votes in the Electoral College which were made probable, if not inevitable, by the rise of political parties, the 12th Amendment requires that each Elector cast one vote for president and a separate vote for vice president rather than casting two votes for president with the runner-up being made vice president. The Amendment also stipulates that if no one receives an absolute majority of electoral votes for president, then the U.S. House of Representatives will select the president from among the top three contenders with each State casting only one vote and an absolute majority being required to elect. By the same token, if no one receives an absolute majority for vice president, then the U.S. Senate will select the vice president from among the top two contenders for that office. All other features of the Electoral College however remained the same.

Years after, loyalties of political parties had begun to cut across the states, creating new and different problems in the selection of a president. With the slight changes, the 12th Amendment had fundamentally altered the design of the Electoral College and, in one stroke, accommodated political parties as a fact of life in American presidential elections.

It is pertinent to state that the idea of electing the president by direct popular vote was not widely promoted as an alternative to redesigning the Electoral College. This is said to be because the physical and demographic circumstances of the country had not changed that much in many years. Perhaps, the excesses of the recent French revolution and its fairly rapid degeneration into dictatorship had given the populists the need to reflect on the wisdom of too direct a democracy.

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