Electoral College


Author: William Kehen, PhD. Columbia University



In the United States presidential election of 1876, the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, received 4,284,020 votes; the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes received 4,036,572 votes; but Hayes became president. Similarly, Benjamin Harrison got fewer popular votes than did Grover Cleveland in the 1888 presidential election but won anyway. How can this be? The answer is that United States presidents are not elected by popular vote but by an institution called the electoral college.

The men who drew up the United States Constitution in 1787 were framing a document for the government of a republic in which power was to be allocated to three branches--executive, legislative, and judicial. This was to prevent the abuse of power by any one branch. But the framers feared more than misuse of power by government. They were also wary of letting the people control the government through direct elections. The one case of direct election of public officials they allowed was for members of the House of Representatives. Senators, though now elected by popular vote, were chosen by the state legislatures until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

The election of the president and vice-president was taken out of the hands of the population and vested in an electoral college, as stipulated by Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution. Each state is allowed a number of electors equal to the total of its Congressional representation: one for each House member and one for each of its two senators. An elector cannot be any person holding office in the federal government. In some states electors are chosen at political party conventions.

When individuals cast their vote for a candidate in a general election for the presidency, they actually vote for a slate of electors. The party of the candidates who win the most votes in a state thereby elects its slate of electors. Losing candidates win no electors.

The successful slates of electors meet in their respective state capitals on the Monday following the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes for president and vice-president. Although electors have the constitutional right to vote for any person they choose, regardless of the outcome of the general election, they rarely vote for someone other than the person to whom they are pledged. The votes are delivered to Congress, and the candidates are formally elected when Congress counts the electoral votes on January 6 of the next year. The candidates who receive a majority, more than half, of the votes become president and vice-president. Should no candidate receive a majority, the election is thrown into the House of Representatives. (The first time this happened was in the election of 1800.)

By current practice the party that wins the most votes in a state receives all of its electoral college votes. Votes cast for defeated candidates do not count in any way. Hence it is still possible for a candidate to receive less than a majority of the popular vote and win.

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