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The Electoral College System

Why Does it Work This Way?

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Most voters would be unhappy to see their candidate win the most votes but lose the election. Why would the Founding Fathers create a constitutional process that would allow this to happen?

The Framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure the people were given direct input in choosing their leaders and saw two ways to accomplish this:

1. The people of the entire nation would vote for and elect the president and vice president based on popular votes alone. A direct popular election.

2. The people of each state would elect their members of the US Congress by direct popular election. The members of Congress would then express the wishes of the people by electing the president and vice president themselves. An election by Congress.

The Founding Fathers feared the direct popular election option. There were no organized national political parties yet, no structure by which to choose and limit the number of candidates. In addition, travel and communication was slow and difficult at that time. A very good candidate could be popular regionally, but remain unknown to the rest of the country. A large number of regionally popular candidates would thus divide the vote and not indicate the wishes of the nation as a whole.

On the other hand, election by Congress would require the members to both accurately assess the desires of the people of their states and to actually vote accordingly. This could have led to elections that better reflected the opinions and political agendas of the members of Congress than the actual will of the people.

As a compromise, we have the Electoral College system.

Considering that only three times in our history has a candidate lost the popular national vote but been elected by electoral vote, and that in both cases the popular vote was extremely close, the system has worked pretty well.

Yet, the Founding Fathers' concerns with direct popular elections have mostly vanished. The national political parties have been around for years. Travel and communications are no longer problems. We all have access to every word spoken by every candidate every day.

Electoral College Summary
  • Votes cast by the people of the United States -- known as the "popular vote" -- are used to choose the president and vice president "indirectly" through the Electoral College.
  • Popular votes cast in the presidential election are actually being cast for a number of electors. Each state gets a number of electors equal to the state's number of representatives in the House and Senate.
  • There are a total of 538 electors.
  • The candidate winning the most popular votes in a state gets all of that states electoral votes.
  • The first candidate to win 270 or more electoral votes is elected.

It is possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote and still be elected president by the Electoral College. Four presidents have been elected in this manner: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000.

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