About the U.S. Electoral College: Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions about the U.S. Electoral College
(Information courtesy of the NARA - Federal Register)

How did the terms "Elector" and "Electoral College" come into usage?

The term "electoral college" does not appear in the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution and the 12th Amendment refer to "electors," but not to the "electoral college." In the Federalist Papers (No. 68), 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," but he does not use the term "electoral college."

The founders appropriated the concept of electors from the Holy Roman Empire (962 - 1806). 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). The term "college" (from the Latin collegium), refers to a body of persons that act as a unit, as in the college of cardinals who advise the Pope and vote in papal elections. In the early 1800's, the term "electoral college" came into general usage as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for President and Vice President. It was first written into Federal law in 1845, and today the term appears in 3 U.S.C. section 4, in the section heading and in the text as "college of electors."

Who selects the Electors?

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. Then the voters in each State choose the electors on the day of the general election. The electors' names may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the candidates running for President, depending on the procedure in each State.

What are the qualifications to be an elector?

The U.S. Constitution contains very few provisions relating to the qualifications of electors. Article II, section 1, clause 2 provides that no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector. As a historical matter, the 14th Amendment provides that State officials who have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies are disqualified from serving as electors. This prohibition relates to the post-Civil War era.

A State's certification of electors on its Certificates of Ascertainment is generally sufficient to establish the qualifications of electors.

How does the Electoral College elect the President?

View a summary of the Electoral College process and key dates for election year 2004.

How does the Electoral College process work in my State?

For information on the electoral process in your State, you may wish to contact the Secretary of State of your State.

To find your Secretary of State, go to the web site for the National Association of Secretaries of State: http://www.nass.org.

Is my vote for President and Vice President meaningful in the Electoral College system?

Yes, within your State your vote has a great deal of significance. Under the Electoral College system, we do not elect the President and Vice President through a direct nation-wide vote. The Presidential election is decided by the combined results of 51 State elections (in this context, the term "State" includes DC). It is possible that an elector could ignore the results of the popular vote, but that occurs very rarely. Your vote helps decide which candidate receives your State's electoral votes.

The founders of the nation devised the Electoral College system as part of their plan to share power between the States and the national government. Under the Federal system adopted in the U.S. 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. Nevertheless, the individual citizen's vote is important to the outcome of each State election.

What Federal laws govern the Electoral College system?

For more information, see:

Must electors vote for the candidate who won their State's popular vote?

There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their States. Some States, however, require electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote. These pledges fall into two categories -- electors bound by State law and those bound by pledges to political parties.

Which States bind electors to popular vote results? Refer to Electors Bound by State Law and Pledges to find out.

The Supreme Court has held that the Constitution does not require that electors be completely free to act as they choose and therefore, political parties may extract pledges from electors to vote for the parties' nominees. Some State laws provide that so-called "faithless electors" may be subject to fines or may be disqualified for casting an invalid vote and be replaced by a substitute elector. The Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on the question of whether pledges and penalties for failure to vote as pledged may be enforced under the Constitution. No elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged.

Today, it is rare for electors to disregard the popular vote by casting their electoral vote for someone other than their party's candidate. Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party. Throughout our history as a nation, more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged.

How is it possible for the electoral vote to produce a different result than the nation-wide popular vote?

It is important to remember that the President is not chosen by a nation-wide popular vote. The electoral vote totals determine the winner, not the statistical plurality or majority a candidate may have in the nation-wide vote totals. Electoral votes are awarded on the basis of the popular vote in each State.

Note that 48 out of the 50 States award electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis (as does DC). For example, all 55 of California's electoral votes go to the winner of that State election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.

In a multi-candidate race where candidates have strong regional appeal, as in 1824, it is quite possible that a candidate who collects the most votes on a nation-wide basis will not win the electoral vote. In a two-candidate race, that is less likely to occur. But it did occur in the Hayes/Tilden election of 1876 and the Harrison/Cleveland election of 1888 due to the statistical disparity between vote totals in individual State elections and the national vote totals. This also occured in the 2000 presidential election, where George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.

What happens if no presidential candidate gets 270 electoral votes?

If no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives elects the President from the 3 Presidential candidates who received the most electoral votes. Each State delegation has one vote. The Senate would elect the Vice President from the 2 Vice Presidential candidates with the most electoral votes. Each Senator would cast one vote for Vice President. If the House of Representatives fails to elect a President by Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect serves as acting President until the deadlock is resolved in the House.

Why do we still have the Electoral College?

The Electoral College process is part of the original design of the U.S. Constitution. It would be necessary to pass a Constitutional amendment to change this system.

Note that the 12th Amendment, the expansion of voting rights, and the use of the popular vote in the States as the vehicle for selecting electors has substantially changed the process.

Many different proposals to alter the Presidential election process have been offered over the years, such as direct nation-wide election by the People, but none have been passed by Congress and sent to the States for ratification. Under the most common method for amending the Constitution, an amendment must be proposed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the States.

What proposals have been made to change the Electoral College system?

Reference sources indicate that over the past 200 years, over 700 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" and its polling showed 69 percent of lawyers favored abolishing it in 1987. But surveys of political scientists have supported continuation of the Electoral College. Public opinion polls have shown Americans favored abolishing it by majorities of 58 percent in 1967; 81 percent in 1968; and 75 percent in 1981.

Opinions on the viability of the Electoral College system may be affected by attitudes toward third parties. Third parties have not fared well in the Electoral College system. Candidates with regional appeal such as Governor Thurmond in 1948 and Governor Wallace in 1968 won blocs of electoral votes in the South, which may have affected the outcome, but did not come close to seriously challenging the major party winner. The last third party or splinter party candidate to make a strong showing was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (Progressive, also known as the Bull Moose Party). He finished a distant second in electoral and popular votes (taking 88 of the 266 electoral votes needed to win). Although Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote nationwide in 1992, he did not win any electoral votes since he was not particularly strong in any one or several states. Any candidate who wins a majority or plurality of the popular vote has a good chance of winning in the Electoral College, but there are no guarantees (See the results of 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 elections).

Were any measures introduced in Congress to change the Electoral College process by amending the Constitution?

Yes, several joint resolutions were introduced in the current Congress and were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. The proposals, all introduced in the House of Representatives, include the following:

– Voting rights for residents of United States territories and commonwealths   [H.J.RES.101.IH]

– Direct election of the President and Vice President by the popular vote   [H.J.RES.109.IH]

– Right to vote amendment   [H.J.RES.28.IH]

– Every Vote Counts amendment   [H.J.RES.103.IH]

How do the 538 electoral votes get divided among the States?

The number of electoral votes allotted to each State corresponds to the number of Representatives and Senators that each State sends to Congress. The distribution of electoral votes among the States can vary every 10 years depending on the results of the United States Census.

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.

Thus, every state has at least 3 electoral votes, because the Constitution grants each State two Senators and at least one Representative. In addition to the 535 electoral votes divided among the States, the District of Columbia has three electoral votes because the 23rd Amendment granted it the same number of votes as the least populated State.

If a State gains or loses a Congressional district, it will also gain or lose an electoral vote. As a result of the Census conducted in 2000, the number of electoral votes allotted to certain States changed for the 2004 election. See, Allocation of Electoral Votes based on the 1990 Census and Allocation of Electoral Votes based on the 2000 Census.

Can citizens in U.S. Territories vote for President?

No, the Electoral College system does not provide for residents of U.S. Territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa to vote for President. Unless citizens in U.S. Territories have official residency (domicile) in a U.S. State or the District of Columbia (and vote by absentee ballot or travel to their State to vote), they cannot vote in the Presidential election. Note that prior to the adoption of the 23rd Amendment, DC residents could not vote in the Presidential election.

The political parties may authorize voters in primary elections in Territories to select delegates to represent them at the political party conventions. But that process does not affect the Electoral College system.

What would happen if two candidates tied in a State's popular vote, or there was a dispute as to the winner?

A tie is a statistically remote possibility even in smaller States. But if a State's popular vote were to come out as a tie between candidates, State law would govern as to what procedure would be followed in breaking the tie. A tie would not be known of until late November or early December, after a recount and after the Secretary of State had certified the election results. Federal law would allow a State to hold a run-off election.

A very close finish could also result in a run-off election or legal action to decide the winner. Under Federal law (3 U.S.C. section 5), State law governs on this issue, and would be conclusive in determining the selection of Electors. The law provides that if States have laws to determine controversies or contests as to the selection of Electors, those determinations must be completed six days prior to the day the Electors meet.

Is there an online source listing the names and voting records of presidential electors for all previous presidential elections back to 1789?

We are not aware of a centralized, comprehensive source. This web site has the information for the past three elections:

CLICK HERE to see State Electoral College Links.

How many times has the Vice President been chosen by the U.S. Senate?

Once. In the Presidential election of 1836, the election for Vice President was decided in the Senate. Martin Van Buren's running mate, Richard M. Johnson, fell one vote short of a majority in the Electoral College. Vice Presidential candidates Francis Granger and Johnson had a "run-off" in the Senate under the 12th Amendment, where Johnson was elected 33 votes to 17.

See also:


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