The United States Electoral College is a group of 538 delegates—representing the 50 United States and the District of Columbia—who meet every four years to elect the President and Vice President of the United States. Though the Electoral College is written into the U.S. Constitution, it is also a source of ongoing controversy. This is because the outcome of the electoral vote is the sole determinant of the presidency. Critics argue that this model renders the national popular vote meaningless, undermines the principle of “one-person, one vote,” and results in widespread voter disenfranchisement. Debate over the Electoral College has been magnified by recent elections in which the winner of the national popular vote did not win the electoral vote and thus, did not win the presidency.
According to the bylaws of the U.S. Constitution, each state sends a set number of delegates to the Electoral College. These delegates are required to cast their ballots for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates who win the popular vote in their state. The president and vice-president are elected based on the winner of the most electoral votes. The winner must gain a simple majority of electoral votes, which occurs when a candidate has received 270 electoral votes.
Controversy over the Electoral College has been particularly acute during election cycles in which the winner of the national popular vote did not go on to win the presidency. This has occurred five times in U.S. history–in 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.
These instances, especially the two 21st Century election cycles noted above, help to frame the controversy around two competing positions:
The debate over the Electoral College has become increasingly consequential as America has grown more polarized across party and state lines. The result of this polarization is that the majority of states in the U.S. enter into a presidential election with relatively predetermined outcomes. Traditionally left-leaning states in the New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Pacific Coast regions almost uniformly send electors to vote for Democratic candidates whereas traditionally right-leaning states in the South and Midwest almost uniformly send electors to vote for Republican candidates.
In each of these states, the votes of the minority party, while tallied for the popular vote are, in effect, meaningless in the selection of electors. Excluding the states of Maine and Nebraska, which select delegates by district to represent their relatively small populations, each state uses a winner-take-all approach to selecting electors. This means that Republican voters in a Democratic-dominated state like California will generally have no impact on the outcome of a presidential election, just as Democratic voters in a Republican-dominated state like Texas will generally have no impact on the outcome of a presidential election.
In all practical terms, this means that presidential elections are generally decided by only the small number of states referred to as swing states—those states in which elections are closely decided and in which outcomes cannot be predetermined. As a consequence, a small handful of states including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin will have an outsized impact on which candidates emerge with the largest number of electoral votes. As a consequence of the Electoral College model, many national presidential elections are decided by one or several slim margins of victory within some combination of these swing states.
This can result in significant discrepancies between the popular vote and the electoral vote in which one candidate can receive a significant majority of popular votes while still losing according to the electoral map.
According to Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution, each state is required to appoint a number of presidential electors which is directly equivalent to its congressional delegation (the number of its members in the U.S. House of Representatives plus two Senators). The Constitution also gives each state the authority to conduct and regulate its selection of electors according to its own laws.
In essence, the Electoral College was a compromise between various competing visions. The original proposal put forth at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was known as the Virginia Plan and actually called for Congress to elect the president. While most states initially supported this plan, a number of delegates expressed concern that this model might threaten the separation of powers and become vulnerable to corruption.
There were some, including James Madison, who argued that a popular vote would be the best way to decide the presidency. But he also noted that the issue of slavery compromised the ability of the United States to agree on terms for a national popular vote. He pointed out that “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”
In the simplest terms, the delegates came up with the concept of electoral delegations so that Southern states could impact national elections without being penalized for the absence of a Black vote. By extension, the Electoral College served to mediate the possibility that the debate over slavery might determine the outcome of a presidential election, and further, to ensure that Southern states did not feel their institution of slavery was threatened by the nature of the electoral system.
Further, as the United States inched toward Civil War in the mid-19th Century, the elevation of states’ rights became closely entwined with the continuity of slavery and, thereafter, the creation and defense of Jim Crow laws. In other words, Southern states fought in defense of their right to retain slavery and, subsequently, segregation, without interference from an empowered federal government. Thus, the issues of states’ rights and the Electoral College have historically been, and remain today, closely connected to Civil Rights issues in the United States.
From a procedural standpoint, the Electoral College was, in its earliest days, selected by the state legislature in each state. By the start of the 19th Century, states began moving toward state-by-state popular votes for presidential electors. Since 1880, “electors in every state have been chosen based on a popular election held on Election Day. The popular election for electors means the president and vice president are in effect chosen through indirect election by the citizens.”
This is the method that has been used to choose the president for a century-and-a-half. While the concept of the Electoral College has generated all manner of debate for much of its history, its most controversial moments are those in which the popular vote and electoral vote have diverged. In these instances, critics of the Electoral College see compelling evidence to support their viewpoint that the current system results inherently in voter disenfranchisement.
The election of 1824 is something of an outlier. Though it is one of five elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not win the presidency, it is likewise the only election in which the victor did not also win the requisite number of electoral votes.
The election was a four-person showdown, a political splintering which ended the so-called Era of Good Feelings. This name was given to the period for its relative political unity. With the collapse of the Federalist Party in 1801, the young nation achieved some level of political unification under the umbrella of the Democratic-Republican Party. The 1824 election would bring to an end the party’s relatively uncontested reign in presidential politics, which included the landmark presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.
As the party splintered, Tennessee statesman and military general Andrew Jackson emerged with a 99-84 Electoral College victory over John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State and eldest son to 2nd President John Adams. However, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford and House Speaker Henry Clay siphoned off 41 and 37 votes respectively. This prevented either Adams or Jackson from winning a majority of electoral votes. Jackson also edged Adams out in the popular vote, taking 41.4% of voters versus 30.9% for Adams. Crawford earned 11.2% support while Clay held 13% of the popular vote.
With the outcome unsettled by the electoral process, the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment held that the election should be decided by the House of Representatives. Based on their political common ground, Henry Clay ultimately threw his support behind Adams. As a result, Congress appointed John Quincy Adams as president. He soon thereafter raised eyebrows by appointing Henry Clay as his Secretary of State.
Andrew Jackson called the appointment part of a “corrupt bargain,” and became the only president to win both the popular vote and Electoral College vote, but fail to become president. An aggrieved Andrew Jackson deployed the claim of corruption as a rallying cry for the next four years. In addition to building momentum for his eventual presidential win in 1828, Jackson would effectively end the existence of the unified Democratic-Republican Party.
Jackson became the first president from the newly-minted Democratic Party. His ideological opponents, including John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, formed the National Republican Party.
In the decade that followed the end of the Civil War, former Union General and two-term Republican President Ulysses S. Grant oversaw the Reconstruction of the South. The effort to reform Southern society in the aftermath of slavery and war included the encampment of federal troops, the establishment of the National Freedman’s Bureau for the protection of newly gained rights for freed slaves including the right to vote, and, eventually, direct confrontation of the Ku Klux Klan. The federal oversight of Reconstruction was broadly opposed in the former Confederate states.
When President Grant declined to run for third term, Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes secured the Republican nomination and faced off against Northern Democrat and New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden. While Tilden was a supporter of the Union during the Civil War and had historically opposed slavery, many of his supporters in the present election favored an end to Southern Reconstruction.
On Election Day, Tilden emerged with both a majority of electoral votes (184 versus 165 for Hayes) and a majority in the popular vote (50.9% versus 47.9% for Hayes). However, the outcome in four states—Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon—remained in dispute. Ultimately, a Republican-controlled Congress determined that all of the remaining 20 electoral votes were to be awarded to Hayes, giving him an Electoral College edge by a single vote (185 to 184). Hayes would become president in spite of Tilden’s slight margin of popular victory.
Congressional Democrats only agreed to accept the election’s disputed outcome based on the conditions of the Compromise of 1877. This compromise stipulated that, in exchange for recognition of Hayes’s victory, the Republicans would withdraw federal troops from the South. This signaled the end of Reconstruction, the emergence of Jim Crow, and a century of Southern segregation.
Just two election cycles later, the incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland faced off against Indiana Republican Benjamin Harrison. Harrison was the grandson of the 9th President of the U.S., William Henry Harrison, who famously died after only 31 days in office.
Grover Cleveland had been the first Democratic president since the end of the Civil War. Cleveland enjoyed strong support in the former Confederate States as well as in the Mid-Atlantic region.
This played to his benefit in the popular vote. With the end of Reconstruction, the inception of Jim Crow laws, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, black voters faced disenfranchisement, discrimination, and intimidation at the Southern polls. This helped Cleveland secure a majority of the popular vote in a close election, gaining 48.6% to Harrison’s 47.8%.
However, Harrison swept to victory through much of New England, the upper Midwest, and in the emergent populations of the Pacific Coast. Most notably, Harrison edged Cleveland out by just over 1% of the vote in the latter’s home state of New York. Overall, Harrison carried 20 states for a total of 233 electoral votes while Cleveland carried 18 states for a total of 168 electoral votes. This rendered Cleveland only the third candidate to win the popular vote but lose the presidency in the Electoral College.
Cleveland would have his revenge four years later, becoming the only man to thrice win the popular vote, and to win two nonconsecutive terms in the presidency.
The 2000 election pitted two-term Vice President Al Gore against former Texas Governor, George W. Bush. George W. Bush represented the Republican Party, and enjoyed some political legacy as the son of 41st President George Bush. Gore was the uncontested Democratic nominee after serving two terms under 42nd President Bill Clinton.
In a nation which had become deeply politically polarized, the two major parties threw their support behind each of their candidates with little internal friction. However, each party also faced a potential third-party spoiler. To the right of George W. Bush, hardline conservative candidate and former Nixon advisor Pat Buchanan represented the Reform Party. To the left of Al Gore, long-time liberal activist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader represented the Green Party.
Supporters of Nader, though small in relative number, were a vocal presence during the election cycle. In an election which polling showed was exceedingly tight heading into the final months, Nader faced pressure from many in the Democratic Party, and from within his own party, to either suspend his campaign or focus his efforts on states with secure Democratic electorates. Many feared he would play spoiler against potential left-leaning allies in the Democratic Party. In spite of this pressure, Nader gained a passionate following. These voters would come to play a critical part in the electoral outcome.
Ironically, so too would Pat Buchanan, in spite of his campaign’s even smaller following.
On election night, the state-by-state outcomes reflected the rigid geographical divides that have become a central feature of modern American politics. The Republican candidate represented a more conservative platform, and swept both the South and Midwest. The Democratic candidate echoed the center-left vision of the outgoing Clinton administration, and swept the states in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and in the Pacific.
When all votes were tallied, Al Gore would win a razor thin victory in the popular vote, taking 48.4% of the vote to Bush’s 47.9%. And as election night drew to a close, Gore held 266 of the 270 required electoral votes to win the presidency. Bush held 246.
However, Florida and its 25 electoral votes remained undecided. Though early projections by media outlets called the state for Bush—even prompting Gore to make a premature concession—the margin of votes became so narrow over the course of Election Night that a recount of votes was required by law. The recount focused on four disputed counties in South Florida. The controversy only further deepened when it became clear that a number of elderly voters who profiled as lifelong liberal Democrats had inadvertently cast ballots for the ultra-Conservative Pat Buchanan. These occurrences were attributed to a confusing ballot layout.
As votes were counted, legal representation for Bush attempted to halt the count, while Gore’s legal team argued that the entire state should be subjected to a recount. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush, halting the count with Bush leading by a mere 537 votes. As a consequence, Bush would receive Florida’s 25 electoral votes and thus, win the presidency. There is also considerable evidence that the 97,000+ votes secured by Ralph Nader helped Bush to win by this slimmest of margins.
In the aftermath, George W. Bush became the first candidate in more than a century to win the presidency while losing the popular vote.
In 2016, real estate developer and reality television star Donald Trump undertook a populist campaign against the political establishment in both parties. Running in a primary against a slate of more conventional Republican candidates, the political outsider ultimately secured his party’s nomination and faced off against former First Lady, New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In many ways, the electoral dynamics of the 2016 election would underscore the dominant role played by swing states in the Electoral College strategy. Trump pursued an electoral strategy that, either incidentally or by design, emphasized the concerns of swing state demographics—especially in America’s so-called “Rust Belt.” Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, the outsourcing of jobs, and the effects of globalization resonated with economically disenfranchised voters in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trump’s campaign made major inroads into communities where declining manufacturing industries had left gaping economic despair.
His campaign was also impeded by nearly-constant scandal, an FBI investigation into Russian electoral interference, and the daily fallout from Trump’s own inflammatory language and controversial platform. As a result, two completely separate dynamics played out during the campaign. Polling showed Hillary Clinton dominating in national polling whereas state polling suggested a much closer contest.
Election Day revealed both dynamics to be true. With 48.2% of the popular vote, Clinton garnered almost 3 million more votes than Trump, who secured 46.1% of the popular vote. However, Trump dominated on the electoral map, sweeping every swing state and rolling to a 304 to 227 margin of electoral victory.
This represented the largest divergence between popular and electoral voting in presidential history. Ironically, due to growing electoral participation and population size, Clinton set a record at the time for most popular votes ever received by any presidential candidate. Even more ironically, Trump would break Clinton’s record for most popular votes secured by a losing candidate during his unsuccessful bid for reelection four years later.
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures on this subject between 1900 and 2020. The phrase “Electoral College” proved too broad for our search engine, and produced a list composed almost entirely of presidential candidates. Therefore, we used the phrase “Election Reform,” and produced a list of figures who, either through direct action or affiliation, have had an impact on the ongoing and parallel discussions about voter rights, voter enfranchisement, and either amendment to, or preservation of, the Electoral College.
|7||Kevin P. Coughlin|
|8||Thomas E. Mann|
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of the “Electoral College” in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is largely a combination of essential primary documents leading to the formulation of America’s electoral system and non-fiction texts exploring issues surrounding voting, voter rights, and electoral politics.
|1||The Federalist Papers|
|2||The Keys to the White House|
|3||The Signal and the Noise|
|4||Federalist No. 10|
|6||Every Vote Equal|
|7||Federalist No. 39|
|8||The Complete Anti-Federalist|
|9||A More Perfect Constitution|
|10||United States Code|
The two most recent elections in which the Electoral College decided the outcome of the presidency in contradiction to the popular vote–in 2000 and 2016–have magnified a number of concerns about the current model. In both the victories by Bush and Trump, an array of shifting political dynamics came into play. Most particularly, the growing polarization of the American electorate, and the rigid geographic distribution of power between the two major parties, revealed a strategy for gaming the Electoral College map absent popular national support.
Critics would argue that these outcomes are evidence of numerous problems with the current electoral model including:
According to recent polling, the majority of Americans support the move to a direct national popular vote. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 58% of surveyed Americans believe the Electoral College should be abolished and replaced with a popular vote, whereas 40% of those surveyed support the continuation of the current system.
In many ways, the same political divides that defined the issue more than a century ago remain in place today. The Republican and Democratic parties largely swapped ideological identities during the Civil Rights Era—with the former Party of Lincoln transforming into the present-day GOP and concentrating its leadership in the South, and the former party of Southern segregationists transforming into a progressive-leaning Democratic Party built in the image of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Thus, support for the Electoral College has also largely swapped affiliation. Today, according to Pew, nearly two-thirds of Republicans believe the Electoral College should remain in place while roughly 81% of Democrats believe the current system should be amended.
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of the Electoral College, this requires us to consider some of the root influencers in the subject area including representatives from the “Federalist Party” who were the key architects of the model, as well as those who vociferously supported the concept of strong “states’ rights” in the early construction of American governance. Other terms that helped us to draw out relevant influencers include the concept of a “National Popular Vote,” the phenomenon of “faithless electors,” and key advocacy organizations such as “FairVote.”
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the electoral college issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
The key term at the center of this controversy refers to the body of delegates dispatched every four years to elect the President and Vice President. With a total of 538 delegates representing 50 states and Washington D.C., the Electoral College plays the most direct role in electing the President of the United States by granting a minimum threshold of 270 votes based on a state-by-state popular vote.
The key political party in the process of creating the U.S. Constitution and, by extension, American governance and our electoral system, the Federalist Party ultimately put forth the idea of the Electoral College as a compromise between those who supported a president chosen by Congress and those who believed the president should be selected by a popular vote. The Electoral College was deemed an acceptable compromise, particularly in that it would insulate the Southern states from the impact of growing Black suffrage in the Northern states.
Those advocating for a strong protection of “states’ rights” have often overlapped in history with state leaders seeking to protect institutions such as slavery and segregation. As the federal government moved increasingly toward abolition, and thereafter, desegregation, many Southern states asserted that their right to self-determination protected them against federal intervention. In many ways, the Electoral College was designed as one of the original compromises around the competing ideologies of states’ rights and an empowered federal government.
FairVote is just one representative organization among many which has worked in recent decades to expand voter rights, prevent voter discrimination, and address voter disenfranchisement. The FairVote mission includes calls for amendment to the Electoral College system.
The National Popular Vote is the direct counterpart to the Electoral College vote and, to an extent, is its most apparent alternative. Because the Electoral College determines the presidency, the national popular vote is treated as secondary. Arguably—as suggested by outcomes such as what occurred in 2000 and 2016—the popular vote has little to no meaning. Opponents of the Electoral College, however, argue that a National Popular Vote is the only true way to elect a president while adhering to the “one-person, one vote” principle.
The “faithless elector” is an individual delegate within a given state who votes in contradiction to the outcome of a statewide vote. For instance, in 2016, two faithless electors from Republican voting states refused to vote for Donald Trump while five faithless electors from Democratic voting states refused to vote for Hillary Clinton. This phenomenon is relatively rare, and faithless electors have never emerged in large enough numbers to change a state’s electoral outcomes. Moreover, faithless electors may be subject to legal consequences including fines and removal from their state’s delegation. However, the very existence of faithless electors casts further scrutiny upon the Electoral College model, as it presents an additional opportunity, at the state level, for electors to contradict the will of the popular vote.
If you would like to study this topic in more depth, check out these key organizations...
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