Today, the 538 members of the Electoral College meet across the country to pick the next President of the United States. Here’s what you need to know about this American tradition.The Electoral College was created as a compromise at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The Constitution’s Article II, Section 1 spells out the Electoral College rules. A majority of electors is needed to elect a President; members of Congress or people holding a United States office can’t be electors; electors can’t pick two presidential candidates from their own state, and Congress determines when the electors meet within their states (or in the federal district). The total number of Electoral College members equals the number of people in Congress plus three additional electors from the District of Columbia.
George Washington won its first election on February 4, 1789 when he was a unanimous choice as President. Things have changed just a little bit since Washington’s time. At today’s meetings at 51 locations across the United States, there may be a few votes cast by “faithless electors” and more than discussion that usual about the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Here are the basic facts about the Electoral College, including its origins and how the voting is conducted.
It was one of the great compromises of the Constitutional Convention. The delegates in Philadelphia couldn’t agree on a method to elect a chief executive, which was a new concept in 1787. Seminal Founding Fathers James Wilson, James Madison, John Dickinson, Roger Sherman and Gouverneur Morris worked out the details.
What were some of the other ideas for picking a President? At least four methods were proposed to elect the President and Vice President: election by Congress, election by state governors, election by state legislatures, and direct election by voters.
Alexander Hamilton defended the Electoral College. After the convention, Hamilton gave it an enthusiastic endorsement, with a few reservations. “The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure,” he said in Federalist No. 68. “I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.” Hamilton said much more about this in Federalist No. 68 if you are interested: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed68.asp
The Electoral College rules needed a fix pretty quickly. The first system allowed electors to cast two votes for President. The two highest vote getters became President and Vice President. That system worked when Washington was elected twice. In 1796 and 1800, it quickly fell apart and it inflamed an already bad relationship between Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804 to allow separate votes for President and Vice President.
Who can be an elector? Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution says that current federal employees can’t be electors, specifically, a “Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”
Why am I not voting for the President directly on Election Day? On Election Day, people vote for a slate of electors that represents a Presidential and Vice Presidential candidate. In many cases, the names of the electors don’t appear on the ballot and they are announced shortly after Election Day. Hamilton expressed the desire of many Founders to confine the direct election process to a small group since “a small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”
How does the Electoral College work? Aside from the basic constitutional requirements, states control the elector selection and voting process. Each state must submit two documents to the Office of the Federal Register and Congress by the end of December. One is a Certificate of Ascertainment (listing the popular election result and the names of electors) and a Certificate of Vote (which lists the results of the Electoral College voting).
Where do the electors meet? The meetings are held at the state capitols and in the District of Columbia. They start around 9 a.m. and end around 3 p.m. in various states. The electors cast their votes and sign a form confirming they voted. That all goes into the Certificate of Vote. Once those documents go to the federal government, the Office of the Federal Register confirms the votes and then they are read out in Congress in early January. There is a process for House and Senate members to object to votes, but that is rarely used and hasn’t affected an election.
What about Faithless Electors? A Faithless Elector is an elector who ignores their pledge to vote for a certain candidate. They are rare in Electoral College history. There have been more than 150 faithless electors since 1789 for various reasons. In some cases, candidates died between Election Day and the Electoral College voting date, forcing electors to pick another candidate or not vote. In other cases, electors switched votes for various reasons.
Have Faithless Electors ever changed an Electoral College election? The answer is Yes, but it wasn’t in 1800, 1824 or 1876. In 1836, while Martin Van Buren won the presidential election outright, nearly two dozen faithless electors refused to vote for Van Buren’s vice presidential running mate, Richard Mentor Johnson. On February 9, 1837, Congress opened the vote certificates and confirmed that 23 electors in Virginia voted for another candidate, William Smith of Alabama. Johnson defeated the second-place finisher, Francis Granger, in the Senate run-off election.
Recent Electoral College Stories on Constitution Daily
How the Electoral College voting will unfold on MondayThe Interactive Constitution: Understanding The Electoral CollegeWhat happened the last time we had a Faithless Elector?What happens to a vote-switching Elector on December 19?