The Electoral College explained

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Joshua MillerThe Electoral College is a much maligned and oft misunderstood method for choosing the president. Enshrined in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, it is unique to presidential elections and nearly unique to the United States. It accords each state a number of electors equal to its total number of senators and congressional representatives, a number that is determined through a process called apportionment and corresponds roughly to each state’s population.

Seven states and the District of Columbia each have the lowest number of electoral votes at three apiece, while the nation’s most populous state, California, has 55. To win the modern presidency, candidates must earn at least 270 of a possible 538 Electoral College votes.

Because most states employ a winner-take-all system, the Electoral College tends to exaggerate victory while locking some states into reliably Republican or Democratic territory. “Swing states,” such as Florida and North Carolina, whose partisan distributions are more equally divided and have enough Electoral College votes to impact electoral outcomes, tend to attract the most attention from candidates.

Detractors of the Electoral College argue that it is antiquated and undemocratic, noting that it has not only awarded the presidency to the loser of the popular vote five times in American history but that it also amplifies the voices of white voters, who are overrepresented in swing states. Defenders insist that it clarifies electoral outcomes and maintains regional balance in national campaigns. In 2020, for example, the road to the White House wove a circuitous path from Arizona up to the Midwest and over to Pennsylvania before turning back down through North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Proponents thus claim that the Electoral College forces candidates to broaden their platforms to meet wider national demands rather than tailoring them to a few geographically or culturally specific corners of the country.

The Electoral College is a contentious institution with a murky past. Defenders of the institution commonly invoke the Framers’ purported fears of demagoguery and distrust of an easily duped majority. On this telling, the impressionable masses couldn’t be trusted to directly elect a potentially powerful executive because dazzling orators might fill their heads with hollow promises. The Electoral College thus emerges as a necessarily elitist mediating authority protecting democracy from itself: If the people vote for the wrong candidate, the wise electors will correct their mistake.

In reality, however, the average voter in 1787 was a literate, privileged male landowner who, like the Framers themselves, probably understood the issues of their day. While some gathered at the Constitutional Convention, such as Eldridge Gerry (of “gerrymandering” fame), worried that “the people are uninformed and would be misled by a few designing men,” they were in the minority. Indeed, there was support among some at the Convention for directly popular presidential elections, as doing so would weaken the power of local politicians, whom the Framers considered dangerous, to elect national leaders. They were met by opponents like Roger Sherman of Connecticut, who favored a system by which the legislature would select the executive.

As legal historian Paul Finkleman has shown, the sticking point on popular elections lay in the relative voting power between the smaller Northern states and their larger Southern neighbors. James Madison joined North Carolina delegate Hugh Williamson in recognizing that the “more diffused suffrage” among the Northern states would give them a greater say in choosing the executive than the more restrictive slaveholding South. To ensure that disenfranchised slaves could enhance the selecting power of Southern states like his native Virginia (as per the three-fifths compromise), Madison favored the Electoral College, which was embraced in compromise by delegates North and South. Seen from this perspective, the Electoral College is even more undemocratic than many modern detractors may realize.

Interesting facts about the Electoral College:

  • No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio.

  • Each party in each state has its own method of selecting electors, but most tend to be active party loyalists. Thirty-two states impose fines on “faithless electors” who cast ballots contrary to the candidate they pledged to support.

  • In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost five electoral votes when faithless electors cast their ballots for someone else. Donald Trump lost two such votes.

  • In 1872, Horace Greeley (Liberal Republican) unsuccessfully challenged Ulysses S. Grant (Republican) for the presidency. Greeley died after the November election but before the electors cast their ballots. Of his 66 Electoral College votes, only three were cast in his name, which Congress did not count. None cast their votes for Grant.

Joshua Miller, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at UNC Charlotte. A specialist in the history of political thought, he teaches courses in political philosophy, international relations, liberal studies and American government.