Most elections in the United States are direct democratic elections. That is, the person that receives a plurality or majority of votes wins the elected seat. Some simply need more votes, while some require a runoff vote between the top two candidates to ensure a >50% result. However, the election for President of the United States is performed via an indirect method called the Electoral College. I hope to answer simply in this essay what exactly the Electoral College is, how they are selected, and why this method was chosen.
A Short History
The United States is not unique in using a College of Electors, nor did the writers of the constitution invent the idea. Using a select few to elect a leader can be traced back to the Germanic tribes around 700 CE. The concept was put into practice in the Holy Roman Empire. The prince-electors (Kurfürst) would elect the King of the Romans. Although the first electors are mostly lost to history, it is known that dukes of the Stammesherzogtümer (Franconia, Swabia, Saxony, and Bavaria) were members. Pope Urban IV seems to have suggested that seven princes had the right to elect the King of the Romans for the election in 1257. Three religious electors: the Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne joined four secular electors: the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg. This system would remain mostly intact until the fall of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Likewise, the Catholic Church has used a system of Electors for the Pope called the College of Cardinals since 1059.
The Virginia Plan
Summary: This plan would have created two houses of Congress, one elected by the people and one with candidates nominated by the state legislatures and voted on by the first house of congress. The president would then be elected by the two houses jointly.
Long Answer: The Virginia Plan was drafted by James Madison in the run-up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Since it was eventually the first proposal for a national government, it dominated the conversation at the convention. The convention was initially planned to revise the Articles of Confederation which the new country was operating under. The Virginia Plan broadened the discussion and helped set in motion the complete overturning of the Articles of Confederation and the beginning of the United States Constitution.
The Virginia Plan proposed four branches for the government: legislative, executive, judicial, and the Council of Revision. The Plan created a two-tiered legislature where the first tier was elected by the then 13 states and the second tier was elected by the first-tier from a pool of candidates nominated by the 13 state legislatures. The number of members of each house was proportional to their “quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants.” Larger states, such as Virginia, had more representation. The plan created an Executive branch that was elected by both houses of the legislature to a single term. The Virginia Plan created the Judicial branch consisting of one or more “supreme tribunals.” An additional apparatus of the government would be the Council of Revision. The National Executive and a subset of the Supreme Tribunals – both later named the President and the Supreme Court – would sit on the council and have collective veto powers over bills passed by the national legislature and the 13 state legislatures. Any vetoed bill would be returned with the written objection and could be overturned with a two-thirds majority.
The New Jersey Plan
Summary: This plan would have created one house of Congress which would have the power to elect and remove the president. This president would have powers of law-making in the absence of Congress.
Long Answer: In response to the “large-state plan”, William Paterson, a delegate to the convention from New Jersey, wrote up a “small-state plan” that would eventually be called the New Jersey Plan. Instead of scrapping the Articles of Confederation, Paterson believed that they should be amended. This plan would have created three branches of government: the federal executive, a congress, and a supreme tribunal. Congress would consist of several members from each state that could only vote collectively as one. Therefore, each state – regardless of size – got one vote. Congress would have the power to elect and remove the federal executive. The federal executive would have the powers to enforce the laws and require non-compliant states to become compliant under the threat of force. Although Congress would write laws, the federal executive had the power to make law in the absence of Congress.
The Connecticut Compromise
Summary: the plan that was eventually agreed upon was a congress with two houses, one that was elected by the people (the House of Representatives) and one that was elected by the state legislatures (the Senate). The 17th amendment to the constitution changed the Senate to a popular vote in 1913. The legislative branch would have nothing to do with the election of the executive. Instead, a special group of people was given the sole authority to elect the President and the states given power in how they appointed these electors. Early on some states outright chose their electors with no public input, but this method has been abandoned since the Civil War.
Long Answer: Obviously, the large states preferred the Virginia Plan and the smaller states preferred the New Jersey Plan. The Connecticut Compromise created the current system of government that exists in the United States to this day. One point of contention was how to elect the head of the executive branch. Some delegates preferred a popular election, but many more were afraid of direct democracy. They were worried that certain elements, or factions, could grow larger than 50% of the nation and completely dominate the government. The idea of a group of electors qualified to discern who was appropriate and qualified for the office and given the authority to elect said person gained ground. The College of Electors was born.
Initially, the Electors were not necessarily chosen by popular vote, and there exists no federal law that requires a popular vote even to this day. It was a common practice for the electors to be chosen by the individual state legislatures in states without a popular vote. In the election of 1788, the first presidential election, only six states chose their electors based on popular vote. A majority of the states had state legislature appointed electors in the 1792, 1800, and 1812 elections. Delaware ended the practice in 1832, leaving South Carolina as the only state using its legislature to choose its electors. After South Carolina seceded from the United States in December 1860, all electors in the Electoral College were chosen by popular vote.
Why This Is
The delegation at the Constitutional Convention was concerned that direct democracy would allow for factions to gain more than fifty percent of the vote and force their will on the people. This was in a time before political parties had formed in the United States. The use of an Electoral College was believed to prevent a tyranny of the majority. Since there were no political parties at the time, the general belief is that individuals would be running for President. The initial handful of elections in the United States had the Electoral College voting for two people on separate ballots. The person with most votes was elected President and runner up became Vice President. The reasoning behind two ballots was to ensure a greater chance at someone gaining a plurality of electoral votes. In the election of 1800, this system revealed a flaw. The Democratic-Republicans had decided that Thomas Jefferson was going to be their pick for President and Arron Burr as Vice President. The plan was to have one of the electors abstain from voting for Burr and allowing Jefferson to win by one vote. This plan backfired when no one actually failed to vote for Burr. The result was a tied electoral vote that was sent to the House of Representatives to clear up. After 35 stalemates, the House chose Jefferson as President and Burr as Vice President.
The twelfth amendment was ratified four years later. It modified the electoral college and gave each elector two ballots: one for President and one for Vice President.
The Present Day Electoral College
How They’re Selected
The fifty states are granted a number of electors equal to its representation in the federal legislature. Since each state is guaranteed two senators and one representative, this means each state is guaranteed at least three electors. As a state grows in population, the number of representatives it has in the House of Representatives grow and therefor its number of electors. California currently has the highest number of electors: 53 representatives and 2 senators for 55 electors. The District of Columbia is granted a number of electors as if it were a state, but it can never have more than the least populous state. D.C. has always had three electors. The District of Columbia and 48 states award their electors to the candidate that wins a plurality of the popular vote. It doesn’t matter if a candidate wins California by a 51% to 49% margin or an embarrassing landslide, they win 55 electors. Nebraska and Maine select their electors by popular vote within each congressional district. The overall popular vote winner then gets the extra two electors accounting for the senate seats.
It should be noted that there is no federal law dictating how the electors vote other than it has to be on two ballots for President and Vice President. A faithless elector is one that votes different than they are pledged to do. This can happen by the elector voting for someone else or not submitting a vote. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have laws against faithless electors. Although no one has been brought up on criminal charges, some states will void any vote by a faithless elector.
One of the major problems with the Electoral College is that it does not guarantee the winner of the popular vote will win the election. This has happened four times in the past with the most recent being the 2000 election. Al Gore received more votes than George W. Bush but lost the election 271 to 266. Another issue is the winner-takes-all approach. This creates a situation where swing states become much more valuable than solid red/blue states. An entertaining example of another problem with the Electoral College was published near the end of this video by YouTuber CGP Grey.