The preamble to the Constitution of the United States begins with the recognizable phrase, “We the people,” implying that the form of government laid out in the constitution will be representative of the people’s will. The formation of the Electoral College in Article II, Section 1, leads to the conclusion that this may only indirectly be the case.
The establishment of the Electoral College was the result of compromise as the members of the Constitutional Convention struggled to determine how the President would be elected. While some Founders called for a popular vote, most were “at best, reluctant Democrats” (Jillson pg. 21). Many did not believe that the common people capable of making the best choice for such an important office in the newly formed government. The Brearley Committee was formed to resolve how the President would be elected. The Brearley Committee proposed that an Electoral College be formed to vote for the President. To balance the interests of large and small states, the Electoral college would give one electoral vote to each state for the for each of the members that state has in Congress. A simple majority would decide the victor.
The original proposal provided that the Senate, in which state representation was equal would select the President from the top five candidates should the Electoral College not reach a majority. When objections that the addition of this power to the Senate made it resemble the aristocracy of Great Britain that America had revolted against, it was decided that the final vote would be made by the House.
While the Constitution establishes the Electoral College the states are free to determine the manner in which electors are appointed. There are currently 538 electors in the Electoral College, one for each member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as three who are designated for the District of Columbia. The three additional votes for the District of Columbia were added in 1961 with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment.
Despite its name, the electoral college is not a place. (“What is the Electoral College,”2018). Instead, it is a method that the founding fathers created as a compromise between those who believed that the president should be elected by Congress and those who believed the president should be elected by a popular vote. Many people tend to forget that the Electoral College was created to ensure fairness and is written into the constitution, often misunderstanding what it can and cannot do.
To put things into perspective: a voter in Wyoming has over three times as much power in the Electoral College as a voter in California. For every 134,783 people, they get one electoral college vote, while in California 1 vote represents 410,647 people. California has 55 total votes in the the college but in a winner takes all system if 22 electoral college goes to Republican and the rest to Democrat, the state’s electoral votes are all Democrat.
However, the Electoral College did not always work fairly or in the way, it was meant to. For most of the course of American history, the Electoral College has reflected the views of the populous and the Electoral College results have matched the popular vote. There have been seven instances when the Electoral College either did not produce a majority winner, did not agree with the popular vote or produced an otherwise disputed result.
In the election of 1796 electors voted for two candidates without differentiating between the office of President and Vice-President. The candidate who received the majority of electoral votes became the President and the candidate with the next highest number of votes became Vice-President. This election resulted in John Adams becoming President and Thomas Jefferson who ran against him becoming Vice-President.
Problems began to arise in elections, most notably in the elections of 1796 and 1800. The election of 1800 showed John Adams and Thomas Jefferson faced off again. This time Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes and the decision was pass to the House of Representatives where Jefferson won ten states becoming President.
The elections of 1800 of 1804 led to the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804 which called for the electors to cast two votes distinguishing between votes for President and Vice-President and gave constitutionality to the process by which the offices of both with be decided in the event an electoral majority was not achieved thereby solving the complications of the prior two elections.
There have been other attempts to change the system, but the closest Congress has come to trying to amend the Electoral College after 1804 have failed to pass the Senate (“Electoral College Fast Facts,” 2018). The most notable attempt was made in 1969, which proposed the direct election of a President and Vice President, requiring a run off when neither candidate received more than 40% of the vote (“Electoral College Fast Facts,” 2018). This proposed resolution made it past the House of Representatives but sadly failed to pass the Senate.
The election of 1824 presented a new problem, John Quincy Adams received fewer electoral votes and fewer popular election votes than opposition candidate Andrew Jackson. Since neither received the necessary majority for an Electoral College win the decision was again referred to the House. As stipulated by the 12th amendment the House now had to choose from among the top three candidates, Adams, Jackson and Crawford. The House elected John Quincy Adams President.
The election of 1836 resulted in the Vice-Presidential candidate Richard Johnson missing the majority of electoral votes by one. Per the 12th Amendment, the election was referred to the Senate where Johnson was elected. Today, if in the event that the Electoral Colleges is in deadlock or if no candidate receives majority votes, a contingent election will be held (“Electoral College Fast Facts,” 2018). In this case, the election of the president goes to the House of Representatives. Each state casts one vote for one of the top candidates to select the winner. Only two presidential elections have been decided in the house; once in 1800, and again in 1824 (“Electoral College Fast Facts,” 2018).
In the election of 1876 twenty electoral votes from four states were disputed by Congress and referred to a bipartisan Electoral Commission for resolution of the election. Though Samuel Tilden missed the electoral majority by one vote and won the popular election the commission awarded all twenty disputed votes to Rutherford B. Hayes and he was declared a winner by 185-184 electoral votes.
While some may know a bit of how the electoral college votes, there is little known about who these so-called “electors” are or how they are chosen. Article II, section 1, clause 2 states that electors cannot be a Senator or representative or anyone holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States may become an elector (“About the Electors,” 2018). The selection of these electors is a two-part process. The first part of the process is controlled by political parties in each state. The parties nominate electors at state party conventions or they are chosen by a vote through the central committee (“About the Electors,” 2018). This results in the presidential candidate having a different set of electors in every election.
The second step of electing electors takes place on elections day when votes are cast for the next presidential candidate. When people vote, they are actually voting to select their state’s electors. In 24 states the Electoral College can vote for whoever they want to. “There is no Constitutional provision or Federal Law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states. Some states, however, require Electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote” (“About the Electors,” 2018). Usually, the electors stay true to their party values in voting for a candidate, but they are not required to. Electors who have pledged to vote for a candidate but end up not are called “faithless electors”, but more than 99% of electors vote as they have pledged (“About the Electors,” 2018).
In the past presidential election of 2016, the question of how the Electoral College actually worked came into question. Before this election, it seemed that paid no attention to how the president was elected, they assumed that whichever candidate received the most votes automatically won. This, however, is not the case. When Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral vote, the nation was baffled. How did that seem fair at all? Claims being made such as Russia hacking the election may or may not be plausible explanations for this, but this is not the first time in history a candidate has won the popular vote and lost the Electoral vote. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and lost the Electoral vote, as did Samuel Tilden in 1876, Grover Cleveland in 1888, and Al Gore in 2000 (Revesz, 2016).
Instances like these plant the seed of doubt in the minds of the American people. How can the US still be considered a legitimate democracy if the votes cast do not truly equate to voting for a candidate, but voting for an elector to choose a particular candidate? Attempts to change the Electoral College system have not been successful, but who knows what the future of voting holds in store for the United States?