Electoral College

The Framers of the Constitution were fearful of direct democracy and the "tyranny of the majority" it might produce. Consequently, they created a complex "filtering" process known as the Electoral College which was intended to insulate the selection of the President from the whims of the people. The Electoral College is comprised of "electors," individuals who cast the electoral votes for their states. Originally, electors were free to cast their votes as they chose. Today, electors are "bound" or "committed" by state law to vote for the candidate who received the most popular votes in their state. With the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska, states give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins a majority of votes in the state. (The procedure for electing the President is outlined in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.)

Each state has a number of electoral votes equal to the number of Senators and House Members it is eligible to send to the Congress. For example, the state of New York elects two Senators (as every other state does) and thirty-one Members of the House. New York, then, has thirty-three electoral votes. The total number of electoral votes in the Electoral College is 538--one for each of the one hundred Senators and 435 House Members plus the three allotted to the District of Columbia by the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution.

Electors are chosen by the political parties in each state. When voters cast their ballots in favor of a presidential candidate they are actually voting for the electors of the same party as that candidate. When a candidate wins the popular vote in a state, he or she wins that state's electoral votes. Those votes are formally cast by the electors chosen to represent the winning candidate's party in each state.

Some Peculiar Elections

Under the original rules of the Electoral College, as established by the Constitution, electors cast separate votes for President and Vice-president. Whoever received a majority of electoral votes would be the President and the runner-up would become the Vice-President. However, a problem arose in the election of 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes. When no candidate receives a clear majority of electoral votes, the Constitution specifies that the House of Representatives shall choose the President. It took the House thirty-six ballots to finally select Thomas Jefferson as the third President of the United States. To avoid a repeat of such problems, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution provided for presidential and vice-presidential candidates to run as a team, not individually.

In 2000, the outcome of the presidential election was in doubt for several weeks because of disputed ballots in the state of Florida. The state's twenty-five electoral votes, ultimately awarded to George W. Bush, proved to be decisive. By winning the state of Florida, Bush secured enough electoral votes win the presidential election, even though his opponent, Al Gore, won more popular votes nationwide. If the state of Florida had not been able to certify its electoral votes for either candidate, the winner of the election may have been determined in the United States House of Representatives. It is unclear exactly what role the House would have played under such a scenario, but the entire saga put the role of the Electoral College on center stage. Since the election, several calls have been issued to significantly reform or do away with the Electoral College.

While debate over the Electoral College has intensified in the aftermath of the disputed 2000 election, the emergence of Ross Perot as a legitimate presidential candidate in 1992 also focused attention on this peculiar mechanism for choosing presidents. Perot's candidacy raised the possibility that the House might be called on to decide the election. If Perot had managed to win enough electoral votes to deny either Bush or Clinton a majority in the Electoral College, that is exactly what would have happened. Perot, however, did not win a single electoral vote in 1992 (or in 1996 when he ran a second time) and the House's services were not required. In fact, there has only been one presidential election decided by the House since the ratification of the 12th Amendment--the election of 1824.

The presidential election of 1824 is notable not only because the outcome was decided by the House of Representatives but also because the candidate who won the popular vote--Andrew Jackson--had failed to win a majority of electoral votes. The House ultimately selected his opponent, John Quincy Adams, to be the President. The results enraged Jackson's supporters and he was elected President by a wide margin four years later. In two other instances, once in 1876 and again in 1888, the candidate who lost the popular vote won a majority of electoral votes and was elected President. (See "QUICK FACTS" about the Executive for a table of presidential candidates and their popular and electoral vote totals.) Both Harrison and Hayes were elected President  even though they lost the popular vote.

Presidential Campaigns & the Electoral College

Given the distribution of electoral votes across the nation, it is possible for a presidential candidate to be elected President by winning less than one-fourth of the states. Out of 538 electoral votes, a candidate must win 270 to have a majority and the largest eleven states control 270 electoral votes. (The eleven states include the bottom ten listed in the far right-hand column of the table below and either Virginia or Georgia.) When candidates campaign for the Presidency then, they tend to spend most of their time in large states with large blocks of electoral votes--smaller states tend to get overlooked.

 

Electoral Votes by State 2001 - 2010
State
Votes
State
Votes
State
Votes
State
Votes
Alaska
3
Nebraska
5
South Carolina
8
Virginia
13
Delaware
3
Nevada
5
Alabama
9
Georgia
15
Montana
3
New Mexico
5
Colorado
9
North Carolina
15
North Dakota
3
Utah
5
Louisiana
9
New Jersey
15
South Dakota
3
West Virginia
5
Arizona
10
Michigan
17
Vermont
3
Arkansas
6
Maryland
10
Ohio
20
Washington, D.C.
3
Kansas
6
Minnesota
10
Illinois
21
Wyoming
3
Mississippi
6
Wisconsin
10
Pennsylvania
21
Hawaii
4
Connecticut
7
Missouri
11
Florida
27
Idaho
4
Iowa
7
Tennessee
11
New York
31
Maine
4
Oklahoma
7
Washington
11
Texas
34
New Hampshire
4
Oregon
7
Indiana
11
California
55
Rhode Island
4
Kentucky
8
Massachusetts
12