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Do we elect the President or does the Electoral College?

November 6, 2011  |  Share


Did you know that voters in the United States don’t vote for the president? People actually vote for a group of electors when they go to the polls on Election Day. These electors have pledged to support a party’s nominee for president. In many states the ballot lists only the names of the nominees and not the names of the electors, so many people believe they are voting for the president.

In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention decided on this system of indirect election of the president. Long debates took place about how to make sure the best candidate would be chosen as president. Some delegates supported a direct election by citizens. Others favored having Congress choose the president. Still others thought that state legislatures should make the choice.

The delegates finally agreed on a compromise. Electors chosen by each state would elect the president. Ordinary citizens in each state would have a say this way, but the final decision would be made by people who were better informed about the candidates and the issues.

The Electoral College, this system of presidential electors, is still in effect today, although some adjustments have been made over the years. The electors voted for two candidates at first. The one with the highest number of votes became president. The one with the second-highest number became vice president. In 1796, political foes were chosen for the two posts — Federalist John Adams for president and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson for vice president.

There was a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in the next election. The House of Representatives had to decide who would be president. The fact that the system needed to be adjusted was clear. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1804. Candidates are now nominated to run only for president or only for vice president. Electors vote for president and vice president separately.

How the states elect electors has changed, too. Some states held direct popular elections for the electors in the beginning. The state legislatures made the choice in other states. All the states gradually adopted direct popular elections for electors.

There were no political parties when the Constitution was written. They soon developed, and the party organizations in each state began proposing a slate, or list, of electors who were pledged to vote for their party’s nominee. Voters no longer choose individual electors. Voters choose between party slates.

Political parties want winner-take-all elections for electors. This means that the slate that receives the most popular votes wins all the state’s electoral votes. All the states except Maine use this winner-take-all system today.

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