The Electoral College: we know it’s a thing that chooses the President and Vice President of the United States, but what actually is it? Who’s in it? How do they get there? What do they do? Today, I will attempt to break some of these questions down and answer them.
When the Framers of the Constitution were laboring over how to make a new government, they were concerned about how to elect the President. The Virginia delegates suggested Congress should choose the President. The smaller states feared that this would give the bigger states total control over choosing the President, since the bigger states would have the most representation in Congress. The Framers ultimately decided to allow each state to choose electors, whom the people would choose exclusively for the purpose of selecting the President. The idea was that these electors would be free of outside influence and intrigue (such things would be best left to Congress).
So far, so good, but how are these electors chosen? Article II of the Constitution gave the state governments the power to decide who the electors would be. Initially, state governments did what the Framers expected: they had the citizens vote on electors, and the electors cast their ballots for the President. The electors were trustees, expected to be smart enough to make enlightened decisions about who should be President. Basically, the Framers thought the average citizen was too dumb to know what was best for him and so the average citizen should vote for a smart person to make the right choice. However, states got crafty and figured that their best bet to get their man in office was to fix who the potential electors were. So, for example, if the state legislature of Virginia really wanted a Virginian politician to be elected president, the legislators picked electors they knew would vote for the Virginian presidential candidate. This was technically allowed, since Article II gave the states the ability to choose electors however the states wanted, but it clearly was not how the Framers intended things to work. Soon, most states adopted this strategy because why fix what was not broken?
Electors are chosen by the political parties before Election Day. The Constitution forbids any elected or appointed government official from being an elector. All states choose electors by popular vote. In truth, while presidential ballots give a voter the choice of the different presidential candidates, what they are actually voting for is the block of electors pledged to vote for each presidential candidate. The electors almost always choose the candidate of the party they are from, but occasionally “faithless electors” defect from the party’s choice. Being a faithless elector is punishable by law in some states. The electors convene after the citizens of a state choose their pick for president, determined on a county-by-county basis, and then cast their votes. A presidential candidate needs an absolute majority of the electors’ votes to win. Currently, the number for the absolute majority is 270 electoral votes. If no one gets 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives picks from among the three presidential candidates who had the most votes and the Senate picks from among the three vice presidential candidates who had the most votes.
States get different numbers of electors. The number of electors a state gets is based on how many people represent that state in Congress. For example, California has two senators and fifty-three congressmen: therefore, California gets fifty-five electoral votes. Washington D.C. gets as many electors as the least populous state. Wyoming, the least populous state, has two senators and one congressman, so Washington D.C. therefore gets three electors.
Electors cast their ballots in their state capitals in December. After the ballots are cast, copies of the vote tally are sent to Washington D.C. and then counted in a joint session of Congress. The presiding officer over the special joint session, usually the outgoing vice president, then announces the winner. Then, they come back in four years to repeat the cycle.
This is a very simple breakdown of how the Electoral College works and many formalities have been excluded in this overview. However, this has hopefully been an instructive primer on American democracy. If you want us to cover more topics like this – the kind everyone should know about but never got a chance to learn about – let us know in the comments!