The electoral college is one of the most important elements of the modern American political system, as it determines exactly how the President of the United States is elected. Considering that the President holds the powers of the executive branch of the American government, the process to elect the President is of great significance to any American citizen, not least because American citizens have a say in the election of the President.
But exactly how Americans are able to affect the election of the President depends entirely on the rules of the electoral college system, which does not allow for as much direct influence as many Americans may imagine.
Electoral College Background
The electoral college is established in Article 2 of the Constitution, and as such, was one of the important elements included in the Constitution by its framers. They specifically chose to implement the electoral college for a number of reasons, relating both to practical affairs, and to their beliefs concerning the overall operation of the American government. The electoral college is a system under which the American people do not directly elect the President, as they do in the modern day world for both Representatives and Senators.
Instead, American citizens vote for electors in the electoral college. These electors will then cast votes to determine the President. The electors are not bound by the desires of the citizens who elected them, and may vote for any presidential candidate that they choose, although most often, electors are individuals who a given political party trusts very strongly, and who will most likely vote as anticipated.
Additionally, electors can make pledges that they will vote for certain candidates. Electors who do not keep their pledges are called faithless electors. The electoral college system would not, in and of itself, punish these faithless electors, but the political parties with whom the faithless electors are associated might be able to censure those electors, and some states have adopted laws that would punish faithless electors. But the nature of the electoral college system is such that electors are separate from the rest of the public.
Indirect Popular Voting
The electoral college system is an indirect system of voting. Under the electoral college, American citizens are voting for an elector, who would then vote for the President, in turn. Those citizens are not directly voting for the President.
The framers of the Constitution had a number of different reasons for doing this. Some of those reasons were embedded firmly in the nature of the time period in which the Constitution was written. For example, a direct election would have been impractical for the time. Collecting all the votes of all the citizens, and then tabulating those votes, would have taken inordinate amounts of time to do as a single, direct election.
By splitting it into an electoral college system, in which each citizen is effectively voting within his or her state, the system became much more easily managed. Additionally, the framers of the Constitution were attempting to prevent too much power from being put into the hands of the public, directly.
They were consistently wary of any one party having too much power, and there was no difference between a tyranny of one individual and a tyranny of the majority, in their opinion. The electoral college system was designed so as to nullify some of the potential for the tyranny of the majority by making population less important in the whole of the electoral college process.
Reaching Proper Majority
The framers of the Constitution decided not to have a system based on plurality, for similar reasons to those for making the electoral college in the first place. A presidential election system based on plurality would give the election to the candidate or party that had the most votes in the election, regardless of whether or not that candidate or party received a majority of votes. Instead of a plurality, then, the framers of the Constitution made an absolute majority the means of winning the presidential election.
To win an absolute majority, a candidate must have over half of the total possible votes in the system. This would, therefore, count as “possible votes” all abstentions. Using a system based on achieving an absolute majority does ensure that the President-Elect was elected by a majority of the country, instead of simply being the most popular out of a number of low-popularity candidates.
In most elections, obviously, only one candidate can achieve an absolute majority, but in all elections, it is always possible that no candidate would achieve an absolute majority. This is because the American system allows for more than two candidates to run, which means that each of three candidates might get a third of the total votes, or each of four candidates might get a quarter of the total votes.
In any such situation, no candidate would have earned enough votes to win an absolute majority. In such a case, Article Two of the Constitution and the Twelfth Amendment provide for the House of Representatives to take over the election. The House would vote on which of the three candidates receiving the most electoral votes should become the President. To find out more about the nature of a system based on achieving an absolute majority of votes, click the link.
Debates over Systematic Reform
The electoral college system is not perfect, and certainly has a number of flaws. The framers of the Constitution who chose to employ the system likely did not envision it as a perfect system, but many of the flaws that have become apparent over the years were likely entirely unanticipated by those framers. For example, some of the reasoning behind the electoral college’s implementation, such as the sheer impracticality of collecting and tabulating the votes of all citizens in a direct election, have been circumvented in the modern world by advanced communications technology and computing technology.
Where those may once have been practical concerns, they are now no longer significant. Furthermore, the current system of campaign in America effectively “games” the electoral college system, such that candidates will focus their time, effort, and money on only certain swing states, as opposed to states in general. These swing states seem to bear more significance to the election as a whole, as well, primarily because a state that is very predisposed towards voting for a particular candidate, or a particular party’s set of electors, will be less significant as far as a candidate’s campaign strategy goes.
The swing states will be the primary determinants of the election, as opposed to the states that are firmly entrenched in voting for one party or another. Further criticism includes the fact that the electoral college system actually devalues the individual vote and discourages voter turnout, because every voter’s vote only matters in the context of his or her own state, and as long as that state is likely to vote for his or her choice of candidate anyway, then his or her vote is less significant.
If his or her state is likely to vote against his or her choice of candidate, then his or her vote is similarly less significant, primarily because he or she would be unlikely to change the disposition of his or her state, if the state was polarized enough. Follow the link to learn more about some of the criticisms of the electoral college system, and how some are attempting to solve these problems.
Election of 1876
The election of 1876 was an early example of a voting controversy, in which difficulty in counting and tabulating votes led to difficulty in determining who was the victorious candidate in the election. Rutherford B. Hayes was running against Samuel J. Tilden, and in the election, Tilden seemed to win the popular vote, while the electoral vote was indeterminate. The reason for this indeterminacy came from an error in three states’ submissions of results concerning the election.
Each state submitted two sets of results, one in favor of Hayes, and one in favor of Tilden. Determining which set of results was correct was no easy task, and because the race was so close throughout the rest of the nation, the determination of these results would govern the course of the election. In order to determine which candidate was to be elected, an Electoral Commission was appointed. But this Commission was something of a farce, if only because it was made up of 7 members each of both parties, and those members voted along their party lines.
The deciding vote came from a Supreme Court Justice who similarly voted along party lines. The real determination of the election is attributed to dealing behind the scenes, in which Tilden was convinced not to contest the findings of the Electoral Commission in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, in exchange for certain political favors from Hayes when Hayes became President.
But this election stands out as one of the most controversial in American history, and as one of the few elections in which the candidate who won the popular vote, Tilden, did not win the presidency. For more information about the election of 1876 and its controversy, click the link.
Election of 1888
The election of 1888 was noteworthy only because the candidate who won the election did not win the popular vote, which is an oft-considered consequence of the electoral college system. The two candidates in the election were Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.
Grover Cleveland, the incumbent, lost the election to Benjamin Harrison, despite winning more of the popular vote. This was more attributable to the fact that the election was a remarkably close race than it was attributable to anything else. Grover Cleveland lost his own state of New York by a 1% margin, which gave Harrison the necessary votes to beat Cleveland. But Cleveland, in turn, won 24 of his votes from different states where he only won by a 1% margin, as well.
This election demonstrated the importance principle that the only times when the candidate who wins the popular vote does not win the electoral vote are in those races which are remarkably close. Any race with a greater margin of victory would be very unlikely to result in the same kind of outcome. This election was also perfectly legitimate, with no controversy as to its outcome. Though Grover Cleveland did lose his home state by such a small margin, there was no doubt that he did lose, and that Harrison had successfully won the election. To learn more about this election and how it fits into the overall scheme of historic elections in America, follow the link.
Election of 2000
The election of 2000 was an incredibly contentious election, in which the results were debated and argued over for quite a long time before it was finally resolved. The two candidates involved in the election were George W. Bush and Al Gore. It was yet another election in which the winner of the popular vote did not win the electoral vote, and, like the election of 1888, it was another extremely close race. That is the source of the main controversy surrounding the election. The election was so close that a miscount in an important state could have spelled disaster for either of the involved candidates.
Unfortunately, there was evidence of just such a miscount in Florida, due to some difficulties in the counting process. As a result, the actual determination of the election’s victor dragged on for a month, for much longer than it normally would have gone. Al Gore had more of the popular vote, but Florida offered up 25 electoral votes, which was enough to put either candidate over the top and give that candidate the presidency.
Florida’s votes eventually appeared to go to Bush, but Gore contested this countless times, as some votes from certain counties in Florida were not tabulated into the overall results, because those counties had not had enough time to complete their recounts. Gore eventually wound up taking the case to the Florida Supreme Court, and even the United States Supreme Court, in an attempt to get time for a recount.
Eventually, however, the courts decided against a recount, and instead ordered a decision. George W. Bush won the election, as a result, even though Bush had not won the popular vote. The election stands out as one of the most controversial elections of the past hundred years, and even in the country’s history as a whole. It raised important issues about exactly what the procedure should be in situations where a recount is necessary. Click the link for more about the election of 2000 and its many problems and controversies.
Procedures When Majority is Not Met
When the absolute majority necessary for a successful presidential win is not actually met by any presidential candidate, Article Two of the Constitution actually provides the necessary procedures for completing the election.
The election would actually go to the House of Representatives, which would have its own vote to determine which of the three candidates receiving the most electoral votes would win the election. This has only happened twice in American history, though it almost happened for a third time in the election of 2000. The first time it occurred was in the election of 1800, before the Twelfth Amendment had been passed.
In this case, the situation was even more problematic, because the system of the electoral college was different than most understand it today. Electors today get one vote for the President, and one vote for the Vice-President, thanks to the Twelfth Amendment. But in 1800, electors voted twice, for two presidential candidates. The candidate with the second most amount of electoral votes would become the Vice-President. This also meant that, although parties would put forward one candidate as the President, and one as the Vice-President, with intent that each only fill the originally conceived role, there was no rule necessitating that outcome.
As a result, in 1800, two candidates tied in electoral votes, with neither getting the necessary majority. The decision went to the House of Representatives, then, according to the rules of the Constitution. The Twelfth Amendment was passed as a result. This situation cropped up again in 1824, when four different candidates ran from the same party, and none of them won an absolute majority. The decision again went to the House of Representatives, but this time, they decided upon a candidate who had won neither the plurality of electoral votes, nor the plurality of popular votes.
The solution for these situations, of turning the election over to the House of Representatives, however, was shown to be effective and functional. For more information about each of these elections and the general procedures for what happens in the electoral college system when no candidate earns an absolute majority, follow the link.