Congress for Kids and Adults: Elections and The Electoral College

constitutional-convention-1787The Electoral College

Everyone knows that Americans vote for the President every four years, but did you know that voters in the United States don’t vote for the president? People actually vote for a group of electors when they go to the polls on Election Day. These electors have pledged to support a party’s nominee for president. In many states the ballot lists only the names of the nominees and not the names of the electors, so many people believe they are voting for the president.

The Electoral College is made up of representatives from each state and Washington DC and the biggest states will have more representatives, which we call “electors.”  These electors will give all of their votes to the Presidential candidate that wins the popular vote in each state.  The popular vote is to total number of people that vote for each candidate.  If this system seems strange to you, then you would be correct, the Electoral College is unique to the United States.

Many have criticized the Electoral College system over the years.

Although some attempts to change it have been successful, two important criticisms still remain unanswered. First, there is no guarantee that an elector who is pledged to vote for a certain candidate will actually do so. Only a few electors have switched their vote, and none changed the outcome of an election. The winner-take-all system is the second criticism. By getting just one more popular vote that the opponent, a nominee can get all of a state’s electoral votes. As a result, three nominees have been elected president even though their opponents received more popular votes nationally.

The history of the Electoral College dates back to colonial times, before the thirteen colonies and earliest states became the United States. Back then, each state acted as its own country, printing money and having its own army.  Therefore, when these states did become one country, it made sense to have the states send representatives to a convention to choose the President, based on who the voters in each state liked.  After all, the President did not have as much power then as he does today.

In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention decided on this system of indirect election of the president. Most delegates considered themselves as merchants or slave owners Small farmers, free African-Americans, women, or Native Americans are not present. Long debates took place about how to make sure the best candidate would be chosen as president. Some delegates supported a direct election by citizens. Others favored having Congress choose the president. Still others thought that state legislatures should make the choice.

The delegates finally agreed on a compromise.

Electors chosen by each state would elect the president. Ordinary citizens in each state would have a say this way, but the final decision would be made by people who were “better informed” about the candidates and the issues.

jefferson-and-burrThe Electoral College system of presidential electors, is still in effect today, although some adjustments have been made over the years. The electors voted for two candidates at first. The one with the highest number of votes became president. The one with the second-highest number became vice president. In 1796, political foes were chosen for the two posts — Federalist John Adams for president and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson for vice president.

There was a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in the next election. The House of Representatives had to decide who would be president. The fact that the system needed to be adjusted was clear.

Although many people want to get rid of the Electoral College, some people fear that small states will get overwhelmed by big states in popular voting.  With the Electoral College, every state, even the tiny ones, get at least three representatives in the Electoral College.  This means that every state, no matter how small, at least has some say in picking our next President.

Now, we turn our attention to the 12th Amendment . Did you know that our 2nd President, John Adams, had a Vice President from the other political party?  That would never happen today, thanks to the 12th amendment.

Before the 12th amendment, every candidate running for President ran for President by himself, regardless of political party.  The electors would pick two of these candidates, one for President and one for Vice President.  The way those electors voted was up to the states, so you can see how the system was confusing.  The electors did not have to pay attention to the popular vote. 12th-amendment-to-the-u-s-constitutionSince communication in the 18th century was very slow, other electors from other states could not coordinate with each other to pick the Vice President with the second vote they were allowed.  Therefore, when the votes were tallied in the election of 1796, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson received the most electoral votes, and the man that was supposed to be Vice President, Thomas Pinckney, who was part of the same party as Adams came in third.  By the laws of the United States, those that won the top two electoral vote totals would be President and Vice President.

The 12th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1804.

This result and another confusing election in 1800 led to the 12th amendment in 1804.  The most important part of the 12th amendment is that instead of casting two votes for President, each elector must pick a President AND a Vice President on his or her ballot.  This ensures that the President will be paired with his running mate after the election.  This has been the way we have operated the Electoral College since 1804. Candidates are now nominated to run only for president or only for vice president. Electors vote for president and vice president separately.

How the states elect electors has changed, too.

Some states held direct popular elections for the electors in the beginning. The state legislatures made the choice in other states. All the states gradually adopted direct popular elections for electors.

There were no political parties when the Constitution was written.

The Constitution was written before parties were a player in American politics.

They soon developed, and the party organizations in each state began proposing a slate, or list, of electors who were pledged to vote for their party’s nominee. Voters no longer choose individual electors. Voters choose between party slates.

Political parties want Winner-take-all elections for electors.

This means that the slate that receives the most popular votes wins all the state’s electoral votes. All the states except Maine use this winner-take-all system today.

Winner-take-all or winner-takes-all is an electoral system in which a single political party or group can elect every office within a given district or jurisdiction.[1] Winner-take-all is contrasted with proportional representation, in which more than one political party or group can elect offices in proportion to their voting power.


Two-party system

A Twoparty system is a party system where two major political parties dominate politics within a government. One of the two parties typically holds a majority in the legislature and is usually referred to as the majority or governing party while the other is the minority or opposition party. Around the world, the term has different senses. For example, in the United States, Jamaica, and Malta, the sense of two party system describes an arrangement in which all or nearly all elected officials belong to one of the only two major parties, and third parties rarely win any seats in the legislature. In such arrangements, two-party systems are thought to result from various factors like winner takes all election rules.

In such systems, while chances for third party candidates winning election to major national office are remote, it is possible for groups within the larger parties, or in opposition to one or both of them, to exert influence on the two major parties.


Third Party System

The winner-takes-all system discourages voters from choosing Third Party or independent candidates, and over time the process becomes entrenched so that only two major parties become viable.

“Because even a minor party may still obtain at least a few seats in the legislature, smaller parties have a greater incentive to organize under such electoral systems than they do in the United States.” — Schmidt, Shelley, Bardes

In the U.S., third parties include older ones such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party and newer ones such as the Pirate Party. Many believe that third parties don’t affect American politics by winning elections, but they can act as “spoilers” by taking votes from one of the two major parties. two_party_system_diagramThey act like barometers of change in the political mood since they push the major parties to consider their demands. An analysis in New York Magazine by Ryan Lizza in 2006 suggested that third parties arose from time to time in the nineteenth century around single-issue movements such as abolition, women’s suffrage, and the direct election of senators, but were less prominent in the twentieth century.

The incentive structure, and the geographical and ideological polarization of the two parties, is exactly what George Washington worried about when he wrote the farewell address

Money – or lack of it – is the biggest impediment to a sustained third-party movement, particularly in the post-Citizens United era. Unlimited donations by the Koch brothers on the right or George Soros on the left, Levine and others say, buys access to a candidate and can influence a party’s campaign platform.





This animated map shows how the states voted in every presidential election since the Civil War:



The U.S. Electoral System and the Election Process

Congress The Electoral College

12th Amendment

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