The Electoral College was an idea created by our Founders at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 detailing how our country would elect the President of the United States. Although some consider it a relic from the past, our Founders put a lot of thought into this electoral system and the rationale behind it is sound.
The initial proposal put before the delegates was the Virginia Plan which called for the President to be elected by Congress. This idea was quickly dismissed because it violated the principle of separation of powers.
After much debate, the delegates decided to have “electors” assigned by each state elect the President. This decision was enshrined in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution. Interestingly, the term “Electoral College” is not found in the Constitution and was not written in federal law until 1845. According to the law, each state is awarded the same number of electors as it has representatives in Congress (House Representatives plus 2 Senators) and the District of Columbia gets three. This system allowed for smaller states to have significant say in the Presidential elections and prevented larger states from dominating the process.
There is a total of 538 electors and, to win, a candidate must get 270 electoral votes, a clear majority. If no candidate receives at least 270 electoral votes, the election is decided by the House of Representatives with each state receiving one vote. In our current two-party system, this scenario seems unlikely, but it has not always been this way. By 1824, there was essentially one political party, the Democratic- Republicans. Although this party had won six straight Presidential elections, it splintered in 1824 into four factions, each of which nominated a candidate for President.
Andrew Jackson won the most popular and electoral votes, but not a majority. As called for by the Constitution, the election moved to the House which selected John Quincy Adams, the son of former President John Adams and a favorite of the establishment.
Jackson, the outsider from the West, howled that he had been robbed. However, he got his revenge four years later, in 1828, when he defeated President Adams in a rematch.
As tasked by the Constitution, the leaders of the state’s political parties must create a slate of electors for each Presidential election. Technically, we are voting for this slate of electors, not the candidates on the ticket.
Exactly who are these mysterious electors? In general, they are people associated with the political parties in each state. They may be political activists or fund raisers or relatives of high-ranking officials, but they cannot be federal elected officials.
Although not required by federal law, currently 48 states and the District of Columbia award its votes in a “winner take all” format. In other words, whoever receives the most popular votes gets all the electoral votes. Only Maine and Nebraska allow for the splitting of their electoral votes.
Interestingly, there is some legal uncertainty regarding if the electors are bound to vote for the candidate selected by their party and the popular vote. While electors almost always do vote in accordance with party wishes, on rare occasions a “faithless elector” may cast a wildcat vote for someone else.
Federal law prescribes that the electors meet in their respective state capitals to cast their votes on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December” (this year December 19). The state ballots are then submitted to Congress where they are read aloud and recorded on January 6 in a joint session of Congress. A “President-elect” is then declared who gets sworn in and becomes our next President at noon EST on Jan. 20.
SUGGESTED READING A great book on the Electoral College is “Why We Need the Electoral College” by Tara Ross. It came out in 2019, is well written, and highly recommended.
PLACES TO VISIT A neat place to visit is the home of our first father and son Presidents, John and John Quincy Adams in Quincy, MA. A National Historical Park located on 13 acres just south of Boston, it has beautiful grounds, several historic homes and a nice Visitor’s Center.
WHY IT MATTERS So why does the Electoral College matter to us today? The Electoral College is part and parcel of how Americans elect our nation’s leader every four years. It is not perfect and was not intended to be. It is a system that wonderfully represents the interests of all Americans, not just those from the most populous states. Moreover, The Electoral College is our system and we should know and understand it.
Next time, we will discuss the Bill of Rights. Until then, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a West Point alumnus, former business owner and Ford Plantation resident. You can reach him at email@example.com.