Why Have an Electoral College?

When we vote this November to elect a president, most will think we are voting directly for a candidate. That's not so unless we live in Maine or Nebraska. I'll tell you more about them in a minute.

Our president is not elected by nationwide popular vote but by Electoral College vote. Electoral College members are nominated in each state, often by the political parties. When we vote, our votes are to select those who have been nominated to the college. After we vote, their votes will determine who will be president. In nearly every election, the nationwide popular vote and the Electoral College vote have coincided. A couple exceptions existed in the 1800s when Presidents Hayes and Harrison were elected by Electoral College vote even though they lost the popular vote. The third case of the odd result was in 2000. Al Gore got more popular votes nationwide than George W. Bush, but Bush won more Electoral College votes, so he became president.

48 states and the District of Columbia follow winner takes all rules. In Florida, for example, whichever presidential candidate gets the most popular votes will be awarded all the Electoral College votes. In contrast, Maine and Nebraska follow a proportional voting rule, where elector’s votes are allocated to the candidates in rough proportion to popular vote. It is a complex system that could lead to a tie in votes, in which case the House of Representatives would select a president.

The functionality of the Electoral College has been so seriously questioned during its 200-year existence that more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to modify or eliminate it. So why do we have an electoral college? It was created by our Founding Fathers in the constitution as a compromise between election of the president by popular vote or by Congress. Maybe it was an unfortunate compromise. It's certain that we will hear it debated again and again in the coming two months as the election nears.

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