Top of page

The Electoral College – What Is It and How Does It Function?

Share this post:

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, both legal reference librarians in the Public Services Division of the Law Library of Congress.

The 2012 Presidential election is projected to be close, and attention has turned to whether the Electoral College may diverge from the popular vote in shaping the outcome of an election.  Should this come to pass, we will once again have a national debate as to whether the Electoral College should be maintained, scrapped, or amended.  But what exactly is the Electoral College system and who established it?

The concept of the “Electoral College”—although not specifically mentioned by name—appears in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, representing the Founding Fathers’ effort to create a mechanism by which the states select the President and Vice President of the United States.  Section 1 creates a select group of representatives known as “electors,” determined by state.  The number of electoral votes awarded to each state is dependent upon the number of Senators and Representatives that state possesses. For example, California has two Senators and fifty-three Representatives, so the state has fifty-five electoral votes.  The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, provides the District of Columbia with “A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State … perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.”  The states cast their electoral votes through these electors, and the candidate who receives a majority of the electoral votes, currently at least two-hundred-seventy, is declared the winner.

Why did the authors of the Constitution decide to create such a system?  Alexander Hamilton sheds some light on the intent of the Founders through his description of the Electoral College in the Federalist Papers, specifically No. 68.  Hamilton stated that “the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person.”  He also expressed the importance of having electors, who he expected were:

men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.

In addition to having the benefit of such educated and interested individuals involved in the election of the President, the state-dependent electoral college system was also intended to avoid a scenario where a populous region of the country was able to elect a candidate who enjoyed great popularity within that region, but who did not enjoy a broad base of national support.

Despite these lofty ambitions the Electoral College system did not operate as intended during the election of 1800.  In that election, although Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the Electoral College, the electors failed to distinguish between Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr both of whom received 73 electoral votes.  In order to avoid such challenges in the future, Congress drafted the 12th Amendment which altered the electoral process so that President and Vice President were elected separately.

A room filled with people counting the electoral votes.
Counting electorial vote, U.S. Capitol [Washington, D.C.], 4/14/17
The 12th Amendment did not put an end to the controversy surrounding the Electoral College.  The 19th century saw several bitter contests when candidates carried the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote.  In 1824 Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, but none of the four candidates received a majority of the Electoral College.  As a result the election was decided by the House , which selected John Quincy Adams after Henry Clay shifted his support in exchange, it was believed, for an appointment as the Secretary of State.  In the 1876 election, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but after a lengthy, bitter dispute over the electoral votes of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, Rutherford B. Hayes carried the Electoral College.  The storm over this result only intensified after a controversial electoral commission was created to resolve the dispute, and determined the result via a vote along party lines.  In 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College to Benjamin Harrison.

Although in recent years, the battle over the Electoral College has become a more regular source of contention, it is interesting to note that challenges to the system are not, in fact, new.  It is actually because of these past struggles that the Electoral College takes the form it holds today.  The Library of Congress’ website includes information on the Electoral College and elections.

Comments (2)

  1. It’s interesting to consider the resilience of the Electoral College system despite the longstanding criticisms it has warranted. In recent years, there has been growing discontent with two-party system and increased support for third parties of various political persuasions. Considering that the Electoral College favors the two-party system, especially with the invocation of the winner-take-all mechanism, one could argue that a new system is needed to facilitate the changing public opinion in favor of third parties. Additionally, some people make the argument that the current system depresses voter turnout. Because states have the same number of electoral votes regardless of the number of people within the state that come out to vote, it doesn’t particularly motivate states to encourage high voter turnout. Lastly, the most common argument against the use of the Electoral College is the fact that it doesn’t really accurately reflect the national popular opinion. There is little argument about the fact that rural states are overrepresented in the Electoral College, and that this inherently skews the result to not reflect the popular will. This is not to say that there aren’t flaws with the popular vote as a means of electing the President of the United States, but it is certainly worth scrutinizing the electoral system that has been a subject of controversy for 200 years.

  2. Since the publication of this article in 2012, there has been increased discussion regarding the relationship between slavery and the Electoral College. For more information, researchers might be interested in the following articles:


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *