Understanding the Electoral College
Every Americans Alma Mater
The Electoral College unifies, moderates, and protects American politics.
For more than two hundred years, the United States has enjoyed a uniquely peaceful and prosperous existence under a system of constitutional and representative government. One of the reasons for this is the Electoral College, the mostly behind-the-scenes process for electing the President.
Indeed our greatest failure of domestic tranquility, the American Civil War, occurred only when other political forces overcame the incentives created by the Electoral College that favor moderate, two-party politics and national unity.
The Electoral College is, to be exact, the group of representatives (Electors) chosen in each state to cast the official ballots (electoral votes) for President of the United States.
Each state gets as many Electors as it has members of the U.S. House and Senate—the same voice in choosing the president as in Congress.
Before the presidential election, each political party nominates Electors who pledge to cast electoral votes for that party’s presidential candidate.
When citizens vote in a presidential election, we are really voting for our candidate’s Electors—if our candidate wins in our state, those Electors will represent us in the Electoral College and vote for our candidate.
Every once in a while, an Elector doesn’t vote the way he or she pledged (so-called “faithless” Electors), but this has never come close to effecting the outcome of an election.
Also, while most states select a slate of Electors based on the statewide vote total (“winner-takes-all”), Nebraska and Maine choose their Electors based on who wins each congressional district, with the two remaining positions elected statewide.
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College as a way to minimize the risk of corruption, regionalism, and back-room politics in the selection of the nation’s executive.
A national popular vote was considered and rejected because it offered no protection against regional candidates and might create extra opportunities for special interests or charismatic leaders to manipulate the system.
The Electoral College instead forces candidates to build national support, unifying rather than dividing the country.
In fact, the Electoral College probably works even better than the Framers hoped.
Because most states choose electors based on “winner-takes-all,” presidential candidates must have both a base of states where most voters support the candidate and then must reach out into the most moderate, evenly balanced states to build enough support for an Electoral College majority.
Political organizing is always easier in places where people live closer together, and half the nation’s population lives within its forty largest urban areas.
Without the Electoral College, campaigns would spend most of their time in the largest cities, ignoring rural and small town voters.
The Electoral College turns swing states into microcosms of America, where candidates are forced to get out and meet people in all kinds of communities in whichever states best represent America in that particular election.
Presidential campaign strategists are forced by the Electoral College both to build national campaigns and to focus their outreach on the most politically balanced states.
“… it is at least excellent.”
To become President, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes (currently 270 out of 538); if no candidate has a majority, the election goes to the U.S. House of Representatives where each state casts a single vote.
The only President elected by the House was John Quincy Adams, who beat out Andrew Jackson in 1824.
The Electoral College is like a stabilizer for American politics; it is one of the key reasons why the United States has been such a remarkably successful nation.
The Electoral College unites us by recognizing and respecting the unique roll of states in our federal system.
Writing in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton acknowledged that while the Electoral College is not perfect, “it is at least excellent.”