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Overview

Electoral College


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A mechanism for the indirect election of public officials. For the purpose of electing the President and Vice President of the United States a 538‐member Electoral College is created with each state having as many electors as it has representatives and senators in the national legislature, plus 3 for the District of Columbia. To be elected, a candidate must obtain an absolute majority in the Electoral College, currently 270. If no candidate gains an absolute majority the US House of Representatives makes the choice, with the delegation from each state having one vote.

Most of these arrangements were devised in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as a compromise between those who proposed a direct popular election of the President and those who preferred to make him subject to election by the legislature. As originally conceived, members of the Electoral College were expected to be prominent state worthies impervious to transient public moods. However, such notions were quickly overtaken by the emergence of parties and the popular election of electors in place of their appointment by state legislatures. The ‘winner takes all’ rule, or convention, that all of a state's Electoral College votes go to the candidate which wins the highest popular vote, is not in the US Constitution; two states (Maine and Nebraska) assign their electoral votes in proportion to the state vote for each candidate. Occasionally, states elect unpledged electors, or electors break their pledge and vote for a candidate other than the one they said they would. Because of the constitutional origins of the college, electors cannot be punished for this.

Reformers regularly query the merits of the Electoral College system for ‘misfired’ elections (where a loser gains more popular votes than the winner) and for the contingency arrangements that come into play when no candidate wins a majority in the Electoral College. The elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 misfired and misfires came perilously close in 1844, 1880, 1884, 1960, and 1968. Of these, 1876 and 2000 sparked legitimacy crises. That of 1876 was resolved by a ‘corrupt bargain’ whereby the Republicans kept the Presidency and the Democrats were allowed back into power in the South, where they resumed their oppression of African‐Americans. That of 2000 was suddenly ended by the terrorist attacks of September 2001, which conferred legitimacy on President George Bush that his election by one vote in the Supreme Court had failed to do. If all states followed Maine and Nebraska and allocated electoral college votes in proportion to the popular vote in the state, misfires like 2000 would be less likely and misdemeanours in counting (such as those in Florida in 2000) less momentous.

When an election is thrown into the House the bargaining required to form a majority could also create a crisis of legitimacy. This occurred in 1800 and 1824 and might have happened in 1960, 1968, 1980, 1992, and 2000. There could also be a dangerous period of uncertainty in that the House would not make its decision until early January, a mere two weeks before the inauguration.

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