The Role of the Electoral College in Electing the American President

The United States is understood to be a democratic republic whose constitution protects the individual’s right to choose his/her representatives, from the local ward and district to the highest national office. Yet, the process through which a president is elected veers fundamentally from the basic democratic principle of direct elections in favor of an indirect, phased course. This two-step process of electing a president robs the American political system, at least partially, from that essential feature of democratic representation: direct elections. Indeed, the general electing public appears as if it needs a middling agent to express its true opinion about, and preference for, the person who normally leads the country for four years and in many instances gets the chance to renew his term for another four.

The Presidential Election via the Electoral College

Electing the American president is set forth in Article II of the Constitution of the United States.1 A president and a vice-president are elected every four years according to a process that was originally set during the constitutional convention in 1787 and subsequently amended in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution that was ratified in 1804.2 The 22nd Amendment3 to the constitution, passed by Congress in 1947 and ratified by the states in 1952, allows a president to run for only two terms, for a total of eight years. If the presidency is vacated for any reason (death, incapacitation, resignation, impeachment and removal), the vice-president takes over as president to finish the departed president’s term. Normally, the president and vice-president belong to the same political party, so there should not be a radical change in general administration policy. But in reality, vice-presidents becoming presidents have tried to chart their own policy course while remaining within the general orientation of the party.

Once a vice-president takes over and finishes the former president’s term, he can run again for the office: once if he takes over before the middle of the previous president’s term, and twice if after that. An example was President Lyndon B. Johnson (36th president, 1963-1969), who took over on November 22, 1963 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Johnson began his term as Kennedy’s vice-president on January 20, 1961. By November 22, 1963, Kennedy had served more than half of his term that was to expire on January 20, 1965. Johnson ran for president in 1964 and won and remained in office until January 20, 1969. In 1968, as the presidential election season was heating up, he voluntarily ended his run for another term, setting up a contest in November 1968 between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey that was won by the former who resigned from office in 1974 following the Watergate scandal.

On election day, usually the first Tuesday of November, eligible voters––all males and females over 18 years of age according to the 26th Amendment to the constitution, passed by the Congress and ratified by the states in 19714––cast their votes to competing candidates for the offices of president and vice-president. Tallying the votes takes place at the state level, not nationally, making the goal of winning the individual states the primary concern of candidates; in essence, a winner-take-all process. In a hypothetical situation, if a state has 100 votes cast, the winner of that state is the one who collects a majority or a plurality of the total. If two candidates compete, the majority is 51 votes. If there are more than two candidates, the winner is the one with the largest number of votes among them.

On election night, states tally their votes. The winner is that one who receives the majority (or plurality) of the total tally for the state. Winning this majority/plurality gives the nominee the whole number of electoral votes that state has in the Electoral College, which is responsible for the direct election of the president and vice-president according to Section 1 of Article II of the constitution. The number of electors for a state is the sum of that state’s representatives in the House of Representatives plus the number of its senators in the Senate, always two. No state has less than three electoral votes; one House representative and two senators. The State of California is the largest prize because it has the largest number of electors, 55––53 House representatives and two senators––due to the fact that it has the highest population among the 50 states of the United States. (While a senator represents the entire state, a representative represents about 710,000 inhabitants in a congressional district according to the 2010 United States Census;5 but no matter how small in population, a state must have at least one representative.) There are seven states with only three electors, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.6

The total number of electors in the Electoral College is 538, 535 from the states and three from the District of Columbia (the Capital, Washington, DC).7 Winning the presidency requires at least 270 electoral votes, that is, half the total plus one. A president is declared a conditional winner on election night not if he/she gets a majority of the popular vote which is a tally of votes nationwide, but because he/she gets at least 270 electoral votes from states he/she wins. But the announcement of a winner on election night remains unofficial until the College electors meet after the election in their separate states (on the same pre-set day nationwide) and cast their votes for president. An elector is assumed to vote for the person who won the majority of the popular vote in his/her state. This has been violated on some occasions the latest of which in 2016.8 The following table contains a breakdown of the electors in all states.

TABLE 1: Distribution of Electoral College

Adapted from “Distribution of Electoral Votes,” National Archives and Records Administration, U.S. Electoral College, n.d. (accessed 31/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2h6zTZ5).

The Philosophical and Political Origins of the Electoral College

The American Republic that inherited the British Empire in the so-called New World had the same underpinnings of advanced agrarian relations and the ascendant Industrial Revolution in the West. The founders debating the new state’s political and economic systems included rich farmers who owned slaves, rising industrialists, entrenched aristocrats, and bankers counting on the influence of their wealth. Some of them and others belonging to a rising middle class were heavily influenced by French intellectuals and writers writing about principles of freedom, equality, and fraternity against entrenched political and aristocratic classes. It was thus inevitable that these would have disparate ideas about how to replace British monarchical rule with a republican ethos that relies on the consent of the governed––i.e., democratic enfranchisement––yet allows for untethered capitalist development.

Importantly, there were two general orientations to this democratic system. The first, generally represented by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, reasoned that democracy cannot be that practiced by the general populace,9 supposedly because this included many uneducated Americans and small landowners who do not necessarily understand the principles of democratic rule. Many of the early Americans were illiterate, relying for their news and ideas on general and sometimes demagogic information and on inherited wisdoms and old lore that may not have been suitable for modern advanced citizenship. Madison and Hamilton feared that these could subvert the system because they did not understand the importance of consensual rule under principles of law and order. Thus, they preached about the importance of keeping political power in the hands of the educated, rich, and established.

Madison and Hamilton preferred a system governed by responsible oligarchs who knew how to run government, plan future development, and elect virtuous leaders. In other words, they wanted to emulate the British system of government at the time when only certain classes of people could vote for the House of Commons and there was no universal suffrage. Their hope was to establish a similar system of democratic representation with a republican form of government. The second trend was one mainly represented by Thomas Jefferson who wanted to defend the interests of the common man, the regular farmer, and the small landowner. He believed that of the rule of the majority was the best expression of the will of the people, exercised in elections.10 Interestingly, neither trend cared about slavery or slaves imported from Africa since the early days of settlement in the Americas who were left to that fate until the passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress and ratification by the states in 1865.11 In fact, at the time of the founding of the republic, there were hundreds of thousands of slaves and many of the founders of the United States of America were slave owners who enriched themselves by exploiting slave labor, especially in agriculture.12

The debate at the Constitutional Convention thus became between two ideas of representation that necessitated a compromise. The first idea was that of Madison and Hamilton and their supporters who wanted to limit suffrage to monied and educated Americans. The second was that advocated by Jefferson (who, incidentally, wrote the Declaration of Independence) who wanted universal suffrage and popular involvement in politics.13 The Electoral College thus came to represent a needed compromise that saved the conventioneers from disagreement on the charter of the new state. They included it in Article II of the constitution that addresses the executive branch of government. By adopting the compromise, they acknowledged universal suffrage within the individual state. s for all those aged 21 and above (until the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971) but allowed the vote to be for representatives (electors) who meet at a later date to actually choose the president.

This philosophical distinction between the founders of the new republic was accompanied by a political problem that needed to be addressed, otherwise the agreement on the constitution could not have been reached. Among the first 13 colonies that sent representatives to the Constitutional Convention were small ones with small populations (such as Delaware, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New Hampshire), but whose elites neither wanted their interests to be ignored in these colonies nor desired to be joined to other larger colonies. They wanted specific provisions included in the new charter that preserved their representation, domains, and interests. They were afraid that a unicameral representative body based on population size will slight them. Thus a “Great Compromise” was proposed by a Connecticut representative to the convention, Roger Sherman, and reached that preserved the interests of the small states in comparison to the large ones and consecrated their future influence on the political development of the country. All states were to be allowed two senators in an upper chamber of Congress (instead of a unicameral legislative body of representatives proposed by Virginia). The creation of the Senate gave the small states influence over who gets elected president and over legislative issues and deliberations since the Senate has equal powers of legislation.14 While no president can be elected while ignoring small states, no legislation can be enacted without their senators participating in debating it and voting on its provisions.

The Electoral College and Problems of Democracy

That early compromise allowing the small states great influence over executive and legislative powers and privileges is today at the center of a crisis in American democracy. The Electoral College and its composition (sum of two senators plus a state’s representatives in the House) are depriving this democracy (and democratic practice in general) of its basic principle in presidential elections: majority rule. Whatever the justification for this injustice––representation, rights, and interests of small states––it is making a mockery of what the world sees as a model of representative government and should not stand. Indeed, the United States in the 21st Century should not be made to double down on the fears of ideologues, politicians, and monied interests controlling the small states of the 18th.

Indeed, four American presidents since the establishment of the independent republic have won their office without winning the popular vote: Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald J. Trump in 2016.15 In 2000, Bush received more than half a million votes less than the Democratic contender, Al Gore, but edged the latter by two electoral votes in the Electoral College (271 out of 538).16 That election hung on the outcome of the popular vote in the State of Florida which at the time had 25 electoral votes. After a tense battle in the courts, the US Supreme Court decided to stop a recount of votes in Florida just as Bush had 537 votes more than his Democratic rival.

In the 2016 presidential competition between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former received almost three million less popular votes nationwide that the latter, but he edged her by a larger margin in the Electoral College than Bush’s margin in 2000 by receiving 306 electoral votes.17 Happening twice less than twenty years apart resulted in a feeling of disenfranchisement by large segments of the population in states where Clinton’s margins in the popular vote were in the double digits. They also were disappointments for voters who chose Clinton as their candidate on election day in the states won by Trump. Obviously, while Trump won the presidency, those who voted for him in states that went to Clinton were also disenfranchised and their votes made no difference in the final outcome.

Currently, American politics is gripped by the prospect of yet a similar outcome, giving Trump another term without the popular vote. In fact, many are speculating whether the 2020 election will be held under the cloud of seeking an Electoral College majority instead of a majority of the popular vote. As the political climate remains polarized between Republicans and Democrats, and as President Trump continues to use divisive rhetoric about race, immigration, and gun reform, among other issues, it is hard to see how he can seek a majority of popular, raw votes from Americans. Instead, it has become evident that he is relying on this polarization to at least keep those states that voted for him in 2016 in his column, is not add some more that were narrowly won by Clinton.

Many arguments are currently been cited for continuing the practice of the Electoral College as the deciding factor in choosing a president. Those supporting the preservation of the Electoral College mainly cite the right of small states to have influence on the political process as an essential factor. They also point to the urban-rural divide, stating that urban centers naturally attract more inhabitants and thus have more representation in government. Moreover, they claim that there is a slant toward coastal areas (east and west) in comparison to the countryside and hinterlands. One recent example of defense for the Electoral College was an op-ed18 in the Washington Post by conservative columnist and opinion influencer George Will. Calling the movement to amend the constitution to abolish the Electoral College, known as the National Popular Vote (NPV), a “gimmick,” he opined that the issue is more political than anything, since if the Democrats had won in 2000 and 2016, they would not call to change the rules.

On the opposite side are those who see the Electoral College as a redoubt for the privileged power of White Americans. In general, small states in today’s America are mostly Republican states, overwhelmingly White and conservative, and generally Christian Evangelical who have supported the Republican Party for decades and were instrumental in choosing Trump in 2016. As Trump adds to the social polarization in American society, they continue to support him by large margins, no matter his moral, political, or economic failures. They see him as the one defending old values inherited from the time of a more White America and use his office to pass laws and appoint judges who belong to the same ideological orientation. Subsequently, those calling for giving more importance to the popular vote and at least partially limiting the influence of the Electoral College are, or represent, generally liberal ideas and communities of color that happen to have more influence and traction in urban centers and along the eastern and western coasts of the United States. Indeed, a colored picture of the political map of America shows these coasts as heavily colored blue (Democratic) while the rest is almost entirely red (Republican).

A good representation of this second trend was a recent editorial19 by the Editorial Board of The New York Times that argued that serious remedies are needed for the problems of democracy caused by the Electoral College. Otherwise, the board recommended abolishing it altogether. E.J. Dionne Jr., a respected columnist for The Washington Post, penned an accompanying rebuttal20 to George Will’s defense of the College. Mincing no words, Dionne considered those advocating for the College as wanting to maintain White dominance over American politics by making the political process work like a casino, writing that “If you narrowly hit the right numbers in some places, you take the pot.” It should be mentioned that Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 by very narrowly winning three states––Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania––where he edged Clinton out by a mere 107,000 votes collectively. But the states had 46 Electoral College votes, which gave him a majority there.21

The debate about the Electoral College in the United States is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Like many other old institutions before it, it will be hard to abolish, but not impossible. After all, not many believed that slavery can be abolished in the mid-19th Century, but it was; and Congress and the states made that possible. What is certain is that with the fundamental changes taking place in the American social composition toward more diversity and the way Americans are looking at democracy, the Electoral College will get harder to defend with time. Moreover, if Donald Trump wins another term by repeating his Electoral College margin without getting a majority of the popular vote, the goal of getting rid of another old institution is likely to become easier; even faster.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

1 “Article II,” The Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and All Amendments, n.d. (accessed 30/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2KUotXq).
2 Sanford Levinson, “Common Interpretation: The 12th Amendment,” The Constitution Center n.d. (accessed 30/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2fcMSYh).
3 Amendment XXII, Two-Term Limit on Presidency, National Constitution Center (accessed 18/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2e0H3vF).
4 “Amendment XXVI: Right to Vote at Age 18,” The Constitution Center, n.d. (accessed 31/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2dNDxYa).
5 Kristin Burnett, “Congressional Apportionment: 2010 Census Brief,” US Department of Commerce, United States Census Bureau, November 2011 (accessed 31/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/1YWQGKN), p. 1.
6 Ibid., p. 2.
7 Washington, DC does not have state status, but the 23rd Amendment to the constitution, passed in 1960 and ratified in 1961, gave it three electoral votes for the purpose of presidential elections, just like any of the other small states in the Union. See “Amendment XXIII: Presidential Vote for D.C.” the Constitution Center, n.d. (accessed 31/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2edoaEd).
8 Trip Gabriel, “Electoral College Members Can Defy Voters’ Wished, Court Says,” The New York Time, 22/8/2019 (accessed 31/8/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2TXQW0d).
9 Jeffrey Rosen, “America is Living James Madison’s Nightmare,” The Atlantic, October 2018 Issue (accessed 30/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2NBJw21).
10 “Jeffersonian Ideology,” U.S. History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium, UShistory.org, n.d. (accessed 1/9/2019 at https://bit.ly/2jR7nxE).
11 “Amendment XIII: Abolition of Slavery,” The Constitution Center, n.d. (accessed 31/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2mqvhhR).
12 “The Constitution and Slavery,” Constitutional Rights Foundation, n.d. (accessed 31/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2NHwTSE).
13 There also were other impediments that prevented the realization of a fully popular vote, such as lack of easy transportation, a dispersed population, insufficient vote counting abilities, and illiteracy, among others.
14 Amanda Onion, “How the Great Compromise and the Electoral College Affect Politics Today,” History, 21/3/2019 (accessed 1/9/2019 at https://bit.ly/2HLuJP7).
15 Benjamin Elisha Sawe, “U.S. Presidents Who Won Without the Popular Vote,” WorldAtlas, 2/4/2019 (accessed 1/9/2019 at https://bit.ly/2TYDR6H).
16 Andrew Glass, “Bush declared electoral victor over Gore,” Politico, 12/12/2000 (accessed 1/9/2019 at https://politi.co/2lvRNYP).
17 Benjamin Kentish, “Donald Trump has lost popular vote by a larger margin that any US President,” The Independent, 12/12/2016 (accessed 1/9/2019 at https://bit.ly/2FDr0Ro).
18 George Will, “The Electoral College Is Here to Stay,” The Washington Post, 28/8/2019 (accessed 29/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/2ZwmITf).
19 Editorial Board, “Fix the Electoral College ­­–– or Scrap It,” The New York Times, 30/8/2019 (accessed 30/8/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2L8DWlt).
20 E. J. Dionne Jr., “The Electoral College Is in Trouble,” The Washington Post, 28/8/2019 (accessed 29/8/2019 at https://bit.ly/32ciOAu).
21 Tim Meko, Denise Lu, Lazaro Gamio, “How Trump won the presidency with razor-thin margins in swing states,” The Washington Post, 11/11/2016 (accessed 3/9/2019 at https://wapo.st/2fLaxwO).