Exactly how does the democratic system work that allows US citizens to choose their leaders? The history and design of the US Electoral College is designed to determine the next president of the US every four years. Many people in and outside the US have the misconception that the sheer popular vote decides the presidency, when in reality it is determined by a magical number of votes in the Electoral College (which are indeed determined by the popular vote).
So how did such an integral part of the US’s democratic system come to be?
Origins of the Electoral College
The Electoral College was conceived along with the founding principles of United States governance in 1787 with the drafting of the US Constitution. Drafters of the now infamous document were concerned with how US citizens would vote for presidential candidates. There were many factors to consider on this subject. First of all, at that time there were 13 colonies, all of which vastly varied in size and population density, not to mention political leanings. Some people worried that the highly populated state would have much more power to elect officials than smaller states with more sparse populations. Also drafters of the Constitution worried that if left to a popular vote, a large portion of the electorate might not be “educated” enough to choose the proper candidate.
Thus the Electoral College was born as a way to mitigate the population discrepancies between states and to prevent the “masses” from determining an election. The conditions for the Electoral College were set forth in Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution were they remain honored to this day.
How the Electoral College Works
First of all, the Electoral College isn’t a college in the traditional sense of a university. It refers to the group of electors who will submit their votes for candidates based on the votes of people from their state. There are 538 total possible votes in the Electoral College, and a presidential candidate needs at least 270 in order to become elected. The number 538 comes from the number of members of the House of Representatives (435) plus the members in the Senate (100), and an extra three for the District of Columbia.
Each state is allocated a number of Electoral College votes depending on their population, a number which may change with each new census. For instance, during the 2008 election Florida had 27 Electoral College Votes, and in the 2012 Election it had 29. On Election Day, candidates who win by a majority popular vote in a state also win that state’s Electoral College votes. Most states have a winner-take-all policy whereby a candidate wins the entirety of a state’s Electoral College votes even if they barely win a majority in the popular vote. A few states allocate their Electoral College votes based on the proportion of the popular vote. Whichever candidate earns at least 270 Electoral College votes wins the presidency.
Why Doesn’t the Popular Vote Determine the Presidency?
This is the biggest question that comes up with regard to the Electoral College. This isn’t 1787; most people would like to think that their government believes them capable of determining the presidency without a separate electoral body making sure everything goes smoothly. But the Electoral College has been embedded in the very fabric of the country’s electoral process from the very beginning. Proponents of the Electoral College argue that it’s served the nation well and functioned as the founding fathers intended
Detractors of the Electoral College has a different perspective. To them, the Electoral College can prove to be an impediment to the democratic process. In a few elections, for example, a presidential candidate has won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College. The most recent and famous example would be the 2000 election whereby the then Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote but his Democratic opponent Al Gore won the popular vote.
Controversial or not, the Electoral College still remains as a living piece of US history dating back from the very beginning of its formation.
Jillian is a freelancer who writes about higher education, the college experience, US history, and much more for teachingdegree.org among other sites.