Understanding the Electoral College (Part 1)

With the 2020 Presidential Election on the horizon, many Americans are gearing up to cast their votes. But when they go to polls, they won’t be voting for former Vice President Joe Biden or President Donald Trump, at least not directly. That’s because of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is a system of representation chosen by voters to elect the president. As stated in Article II of the Constitution, each state’s number of electors is equivalent to their number of representatives (based on population) plus the number of senators (two).  This means that the smallest number of electoral votes a state can have is three. The twenty-third amendment also gives the District of Columbia electoral votes, currently three.

At one time, you would have actually voted for your elector, however, in modern elections, political parties select the slate of electors that will vote on their behalf if their candidate gets the majority of votes in that state. The only people disqualified from serving as electors are federal or state office holders. In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the state’s electoral votes go to the candidate that wins the state’s popular vote. In Maine and Nebraska, two of the state’s electors go to the candidate that won the statewide popular vote, and the other electors are divided based on popular vote in each congressional district. So when you go and vote in November, you are really voting for that party’s slate of electors.

On the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December, the electors gather in their respective state capitols to cast their votes for president and vice president. The results and then sent to Congress where they are officially counted during a joint session, as mandated by the twelfth amendment.

Why such a strange system? Why not just choose the president by who gets the most votes? It all comes down to comprises made at the Constitutional Convention and the founders’ political philosophy. Constitutional architects like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were very concerned about the public’s (white land-owners at the time) ability to choose a competent leader and not be easily swayed sweet-talking opportunists. They also wanted to ensure that leaders would not become dictators. Remember that the founders created a republic, not a democracy, meaning the power is given to those chosen by the population, not to the population itself. 

Madison believed in a system of vertical filtration, meaning that each elected body would then elect the body above them. This is best exemplified by the Constitution’s stipulation that Senators are appointed by the states, only changed in 1912 with the passage of the seventeenth amendment. The electoral college is just another example of this. In his proposition to the Constitutional Convention, Madison’s so-called Virginia Plan called for Congress to elect the president. The idea remained but was slightly changed by the Connecticut Compromise. Many of the founders were concerned about a group that regularly met, like Congress, choosing an executive. So instead, they opted for an independent body, speciall y selected for the given purpose of electing the president. It was also favored by less-populated states because they are overrepresented by the system (with the inclusion of the two additional electors for the senators, each elector represents a smaller number of people in smaller states). Finally, at the time there was a concern that candidates would only campaign to those in large cities, the overwhelming population centers. The electoral college required that candidates focus on the whole country because they need the electoral votes of sparsely populated areas too, not just the popular vote.

You may be thinking, “isn’t this a little outdated?” or, “is this really democratic?” Read Part 2 where we dive into the historical tests, evolution of, and modern criticisms of the Electoral College.