The United States Electoral College is a term used to describe the 538 President Electors who meet every 4 years to cast the electoral votes for President and Vice-President of the United States. Their votes represent the most important component of the presidential election.
The Presidential Electors are elected by the popular vote on the day traditionally called election day. Presidential Electors meet in their respective state capitol buildings (or in the District of Columbia) 41 days following election day, never as a national body. At the 51 meetings, held on the same day, the Electors cast the electoral votes. The electoral college, like the national convention, is an indirect element in the process of electing the president.
Provisions for the mechanics of presidential elections were established by Article Two, Section One, of the United States Constitution. The Twelfth Amendment provided that each Elector vote separately for president and vice president. Today, the mechanics of the presidential election are administered by the National Archives and Records Administration via its Office of the Federal Register.
Electors are chosen in a series of state elections held on the same day (election day).
Number of electoral votes by state
The number of electoral votes of each state is the sum of its number of U.S. Senators (always two) and its U.S. Representatives; the District of Columbia has three electoral votes. In each state, voters vote for a slate of pre-selected candidates for Presidential Elector, representing the various candidates for President. State ballots, however, are designed to suggest that the voters are voting for actual candidates for President. Most states use what is termed the short ballot, in which a vote for one party (such as Democratic or Republican) is interpreted as a vote for the entire slate of Presidential Electors. In these states, with rare exceptions, one party wins the entire electoral vote of the state (by either plurality or majority). Maine and Nebraska choose Presidential Electors using what is termed the Maine Method, which makes it possible for the voters to choose Electors of different political parties and split the electoral vote of these two states.
The Presidential Electors of each state (and DC) meet 41 days following the popular vote to cast the electoral votes. The Electors ballot first for President, then for Vice President. On rare occasions, an Elector does not cast the electoral vote for the party's national ticket, usually as a political statement; these people are called faithless Electors. Each Elector signs a document entitled the Certificate of Vote which sets forth the electoral vote of the state (or DC). One original Certificate of Vote is sent by certified mail to the Office of the Vice President.
One month following the casting of the electoral votes, the U.S. Congress meets in joint session to declare the winner of the election. If a candidate for President receives the vote of 270 or more Presidential Electors, the presiding officer (usually the sitting Vice President) declares that candidate to be the president-elect, and a candidate for vice president receiving 270 or more electoral votes is similarly declared to be the vice president-elect.
How states currently select electors
Presidential elector candidates are nominated by their state political parties in the summer before the Election Day. Each state provides its own means for the nomination of electors. In some states, such as Oklahoma, the Electors are nominated in primaries the same way that other candidates are nominated. Other states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, nominate electors in party conventions. In Pennsylvania, the campaign committees of the candidates name their candidates for Presidential Elector (an attempt to discourage faithless Electors). All states require the names of all Electors to be filed with the Secretary of State (or equivalent) at least a month prior to election day. However, under the 14th Amendment]], persons holding a state or federal office-whether elected or appointed-may not become electors (an error made, but corrected, before both the 2000 and 2004 elections).
On election day, voters cast ballots for slates of Presidential Electors pledged to the candidates for president and vice president. In most states, the candidates who win the popular vote have their entire slate of Electors elected. At the time of the state canvass of the vote, the Secretary of State (or equivalent) signs a special form called the Certificate of Ascertainment which sets forth the people appointed to the office of Presidential Elector, along with the number of votes cast for every party's slate of Elector nominees. These Certificates of Ascertainment are forwarded to the Office of the Vice President to be used to verify that the people who cast the electoral votes are in fact the people who were elected for that purpose.
Two states do not elect the Presidential Electors as a single slate. Maine and Nebraska elect two electors by a statewide ballot and choose their remaining Electors by congressional district. The method has been used in Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1991, though neither has split its electoral votes in modern elections.
Meetings of Electors
The Electors meet in their respective state capitals (or in the case of DC, in Washington) on the second Monday of December, at which time they cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for President and Vice President. The electors pledged to a particular candidate are formally chosen in the popular election held on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. That is, while many people believe they are voting for a particular candidate on Election Day in November, they are, in fact, casting a vote for that candidate's electors.
The electoral college never meets as one body; the constitutional theory is that the Congress is elected by the people, while the President and Vice President are elected by the states. Although the procedure in each state varies slightly, the Electors generally follow a similar series of steps and the Congress has constitutional authority to regulate what the states do. The meeting is opened by the election certification official (often the secretary of state), who reads the Certificate of Ascertainment - the document setting forth who was chosen to cast the electoral votes. Those present answer to their name, and they then fill any vacancies in their number. The next step is the selection of a President or Chairman of the meeting, sometimes with a vice chairman also. The Electors sometimes choose a Secretary, often not an Elector, to take the minutes of the meeting. In many states, political officials give short speeches at this point in the proceedings.
When the time for balloting arrives, the Electors choose one or two people to act as tellers. Some states provide for the placing in nomination of a candidate to receive the electoral votes (the candidate for President of the political party of the Electors). Each Elector submits a written ballot with the name of a candidate for President. In New Jersey, the Electors cast ballots by checking the name of the candidate on a pre-printed card; in North Carolina, the Electors write the name of the candidate on a blank card. The tellers count the ballots and announce the result. The next step is the casting of the vote for Vice President, which follows a similar pattern.
After the voting is complete, the Electors complete the Certificate of Vote. This documents states the number of electoral votes cast for President and Vice President. The state election official usually has pre-printed forms ready, and the tellers usually only write down the number of votes cast for appropriate candidates. Five copies of the Certificate of Vote are completed and signed by each Elector. Multiple copies of the Certificate of Vote are signed, in order to provide multiple originals in case one is lost. One copy is sent to President of the U.S. Senate (the sitting Vice President of the United States) by certified mail.
A staff member of the Office of the Vice President (here, acting in his capacity as President of the Senate) collects the Certificates of Vote as they arrive and prepares them for the joint session of Congress. The Certificates are arranged in alphabetical order and placed in two special mahogany boxes. The states Alabama through Missouri (including DC) are placed in one box, and the states Montana through Wyoming are placed in the second box.
This proposal calls for an interstate compact whereby individual states agree to allocate their electors to the winner of the national popular vote. The agreement is triggered only upon a certain threshold of states enacting electoral reallocation legislation. The state legislatures together would then establish a direct vote and effectively circumvent the Electoral College system if enough electoral votes switch. The National Popular Vote plan recommends that the present manner of allocating electors shall remain in force until enough states have signed on as to account for a majority of electoral votes.
The proposal centers on Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, which provides, "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." Many partial versions of this plan have emerged over the years.
Maryland is the first and only state so far to have passed the legislation. On April 10, 2007, the Governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, signed a bill into law providing that, should enough states adopt the same law, the whole of the Maryland's electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate with the greatest number of votes nationally for his or her electors, instead of going to the candidate whose electors receive the most votes within the state.
Appointment by state legislature
Another method of choosing electors is selection by the state legislature. It was used by more than half of the states in 1792 and 1800 and exactly half of the states in 1812. One of the reasons that most United States history textbooks don't start reporting the popular vote until the election of 1824 is because more than a quarter of all the states used legislative choice in previous elections, so there was no popular vote in those states. Even in 1824, when Andrew Jackson famously accused Adams and Clay of a corrupt bargain because he lost in spite of having pluralities of both the popular and electoral votes, a full quarter of the states (6 of 24) had the state legislatures choose their electors. By the following election, only Delaware and South Carolina continued to use legislative choice, and Delaware dropped out the following election. South Carolina held on to legislative choice until it became the first state to secede in December 1860.
Legislative appointment made two more appearances on the electoral stage: first, in 1868, the newly reconstructed state of Florida appointed its electors, having been readmitted too late to hold elections. Then, in 1876, the newly admitted state of Colorado used legislative choice due to a lack of time and money to hold an election. (It was also a potent threat in the United States presidential election of 2000: Had the recounts continued, the Florida legislature was prepared to appoint the Republican slate of electors to avoid missing the federal deadline for choosing electors.)
The Constitution gives the power to the state legislatures to decide how electors are chosen, and it is easier and cheaper for a state legislature to simply appoint a slate of electors than to create a legislative framework for holding elections to determine the electors. As noted above, the two situations in which legislative choice has been used since the Civil War have both been because there was not enough time or money to prepare for an election. However, appointment by state legislature has a serious flaw: legislatures can deadlock more easily than the electorate. In fact, this is precisely what happened in 1789, when New York failed to appoint any electors.
Another method for choosing electors is to divide a state into electoral districts, and the voters of each district choose a single elector, much as states are presently divided into congressional districts for choosing representatives. The electoral districts cannot correspond with congressional districts, though, because there are two more electoral districts than congressional districts. As with congressional districts, moreover, this method is vulnerable to gerrymandering.
States which have used Electoral Vote Districting and the years used:
- Illinois: 1820, 1824.
- Kentucky: 1792, 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812, 1816, 1820, 1824.
- Maryland: 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812, 1816, 1820, 1824, 1828, 1832.
- Michigan: 1892.
- Missouri: 1824.
- North Carolina: 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808.
- Tennessee: 1804, 1808, 1812, 1816, 1820, 1824, 1828.
- Virginia: 1789, 1792, 1796.
The Maine Method is a mixture of the district and statewide/short ballot modes of selection. It has this name because it was adopted by Maine for the 1972 presidential election and remains in place. Nebraska has used this method for presidential elections since 1992.
In the Maine Method, the votes for president in each congressional district elect one Presidential Elector. The state-wide vote elects two more Presidential Electors. The state's electoral votes could be split among two or more candidates, as the state's Congressional delegation can be split among parties.
The Maine Method was first used by Massachusetts in the elections of 1804, 1812, and 1820. After splitting off from Massachusetts in 1820, Maine continued to use this method through the election of 1828, then abandoned it for 144 years before returning to it for the election of 1972.
In the 18 state contests in which this method has been used, only once has it achieved a result different from winner-take-all: in Maine, in the presidential election of 1828, 1 of Maine's 9 electoral votes went to Andrew Jackson.
New York, 1828
In 1828, New York used its own variant of the Maine method for choosing electors. Just as Maine and Nebraska now do, voters in each congressional district would select one elector. Then these electors would in turn choose the remaining electors, instead of these electors being directly determined by voters statewide. In this single state contest, it resulted in a 20–16 split between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams.
Current proposed legislative adjustment
Legislation is currently before Congress (H.R.1433) that would add a congressional seat to Utah (going from three representatives to four) and give Washington DC a voting seat in the House of Representatives. The additional seat in Utah would give that state one additional vote in the Electoral College (going from five to six). Since Washington DC is already given three voting members in the Electoral College, this change in Congress would not change its representation in the Electoral College.
Other observers argue that the current electoral rules of Maine and Nebraska should be extended nationwide. As previously noted, the winner in each of those two states is only guaranteed two of Maine's four and Nebraska's five electoral votes, with the winner of each Congressional district in those states 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. Dividing electoral votes by House district winners would create yet another incentive for partisan gerrymandering. Direct election proponents oppose the district method also because candidates would focus on the votes of only the competitive districts, making the votes of even fewer Americans matter than when candidates focus on votes in competitive states.
Another perceived problem with this suggestion is that it would actually further increase the advantage of small states. In winner-take-all, the small states' disproportionately 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 argument 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 United States constitution gives the states the power to choose 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 2)
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 2," could still be seen as inherently unfair, as some of the least populous states would be proportionally overrepresented while some of the slightly more populous single-representative states would be significantly underrepresented (for example, Wyoming, the least populous state, has 1 Representative for 510,000 inhabitants; Montana has 1 Representative for 935,000 inhabitants; compare this to California, which averages one Representative for each 681,000 Californians).
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 more fair and there would still exist the phenomenon of non-swing states being ignored.
- Electoral College on Wikipedia
- Historical Documents on the Electoral College
- "Math Against Tyranny"
- The Electoral College: How it works in contemporary Presidential Elections
- Office of the Federal Register
- District of Columbia Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act of 2006
- Garry Wills, Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power (2003), ISBN 0-618-34398-9
- Henry Wiencek. "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America". Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003. ISBN 978-0-374-52951-2