What is Electoral College?
September 22, 2004
As the 2000 presidential election demonstrated vividly,
Americans do not elect the US President through a direct nation-wide
The Presidential election is decided by the combined results of
50 States plus Washington, DC. The winner of each state’s
election gets all of that state's votes in the Electoral College
(except in Maine and Nebraska, where votes can be split). State
elections decide which candidate receives the State's electoral
votes. For example, California’s 55 electoral votes go to
the winner of the State’s election, even if the margin of
victory is a single vote.
The Electoral College system was devised by the founders of the
United States as part of their plan to share power between the
States and the national government. Under the Federal system adopted
the Constitution, the nation-wide popular vote has no legal significance.
As a result, it is possible that the electoral votes awarded on
the basis of State elections could produce a different result than
the nation-wide popular vote (Al Gore can tell you about that).
Nevertheless, the individual citizen's vote is important to the
outcome of each State election.
In the early 1800s, the term "Electoral College" was
adopted as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens
selected to cast votes for President. It was first written into
Federal law in 1845.
The Constitution and the 12th Amendment refer to "electors".
In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton refers to the process
of selecting the Executive, and refers to "the people of each
State (who) shall choose a number of persons as electors".
The concept of “electors” is copied from the Holy Roman
Empire. An elector was one of a number of princes of the various
German states within the Holy Roman Empire who had a right to participate
in the election of the German king, who generally was crowned as
emperor (how ironic).
The term "college” refers to a group of people that
act as a unit, as in the College of Cardinals who advise the Pope
and vote in papal elections in the Catholic Church.
The Electoral College has 538 electoral votes, one for each of
the 435 congressional representatives plus one for each of the
100 senators plus 3 for Washington DC. The winner needs 270 votes
to become US President. Of course a mathematical probability exits
for a 269-vote tie, but it has yet to occur. The distribution of
electoral votes among the States can vary every 10 years depending
on the results of the United States Census and state populations.
The top 5 states with highest electoral votes in the 2004 presidential
election are California 55, Texas 34, New York 31, Florida 27 and
One of the primary functions of the Census is to reapportion
the 435 members of the House of Representatives among the States,
based on the current population. The reapportionment of the House
determines the division of electoral votes among the States. In
the Electoral College, each State gets one electoral vote for each
of its Representatives in the House, and one electoral vote for
each of its two Senators.
The process for selecting electors varies throughout the United
States. Generally, the political parties nominate electors at their
State party conventions or by a vote of the party's central committee
in each State. Electors are often selected to recognize their service
and dedication to their political party. They may be State elected
officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political
affiliation with the Presidential candidate, depending on the procedure
in each State.
Many proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or
eliminate the Electoral College. There have been more proposals
for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College
than on any other subject. The American Bar Association has criticized
the Electoral College as "archaic" and "ambiguous".
Third parties seem to be most adversely affected by the Electoral
College system. For example, Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular
vote nationwide in 1992, but he did not win a single electoral
vote. He was not particularly strong in any one state.
Any candidate who wins a majority of the popular vote has a good
chance of winning in the Electoral College, but there are no guarantees
(see the results of the 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 elections).
Will the 2004 election be another example?
Abtin Assadi is member of the board of directors at Bay
Area Iranian American Voter Association baivoter.org.