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Why is the Electoral College So Confusing?

The Electoral College is that institution that elects the president of the United States. According to the Constitution in Article II, section. 1, the Electoral College (EC) consists of electors chosen by a method approved by the state legislature. The presidential candidate must win by a majority of the electoral votes cast.

Some hate the EC, thinking it’s a monstrosity. Well, I agree it’s a monstrosity. But we need to remember that many of our founding fathers were amateur scientists and that many of their concepts of government came from metaphors derived from the world of mechanics. One important concept was the principle of equilibrium. For example, there was a prevalent belief that power should not be concentrated in the hands of any one person (a king) or in the hands of the many (the people). Rather there should be a balance, an “equilibrium” where the efforts of one political actor would counteract the excess of another. In the words of James Madison

ambition must be made to counteract ambition.

When the Constitutional framers created the Electoral College, did they create a monster?

When the Constitutional framers created the Electoral College, did they create a monster?

Finding the Balance

Historians are in general agreement that when the framers created the Constitution, they wanted some sort of executive, but did not want a king. When they convened at the Pennsylvania State House in May of 1787 in Philadelphia, they wanted an executive that was sufficiently powerful to enforce the law yet not so powerful that he was tempted to exercise tyrannical powers. The framers were aware of the problems inherent in creating an executive office. In the words of Gouverneur Morris, a champion of strong executive powers:

make him [the executive] too weak: the Legislature will usurp his powers. Make him too strong: he will usurp on the Legislature.

Their initial scheme was to have a single, term-limited executive, elected for one seven-year term, to be chosen by the Congress.

Now, here’s where the complexity starts. They wanted the president elected by the legislature because it seemed the most feasible approach. Most state governors of the time were chosen by their state assemblies and they wanted a check on the power of the executive. Having the people elect the president was considered fraught with problems, so that approach was not seriously considered. However, many framers wanted an executive that was independent of the legislature.

So, in order to get an independent executive they thought to make him “unreelectable” so that he would not be beholden to the assembly.

The above scheme was the best-liked system throughout the Convention. So why wasn’t it adopted?

The problem was that by having the executive term-limited, they ran the risk of creating a tyrant. Since he would not seek reelection, he need not be concerned so much with how he governed which would encourage him to be tyrannical and “heavy-handed.” Some of the founders agreed with Alexander Hamilton when he opined in Federalist #72 that denying the executive the opportunity for reelection was likely to destroy one of the best incentives to good behavior.

Why the Electoral College is Important

Tyrant or Lapdog?

Now, here’s where it gets complicated (hold on!). If we take Hamilton’s advice and make the executive reelectable by the legislature (that is, remove the term limit), he will no longer be independent from the legislature. In other words, he’d always be doing the legislature’s bidding so that he could stay reelected. But they wanted an independent executive. In short, if we term limit him, we create a tyrant; if we don’t, we get a lapdog for the legislature.

So, they were trying to balance several desires: an executive that would be elected by the legislature that would not be tyrannical, yet would be sufficiently powerful and independent. The debate over how to achieve these desirables went on for months. In fact, agreement over executive selection did not occur until the end of the Convention in September.

Presidential Electors Sworn In

Presidential electors taking the electoral oath in Indiana in 2008. Electors meet in their state capital to cast their electoral vote.

Presidential electors taking the electoral oath in Indiana in 2008. Electors meet in their state capital to cast their electoral vote.

The Solution

The man to propose a solution to these problems was Pierce Butler of South Carolina. Butler was primarily concerned with the president’s independence (by the time of Butler’s proposal, the “executive” had a name). Butler suggested the following solutions to the problems raised at the Convention:

  • To reduce the potential for a tyrant, the president could be continually reelected.
  • To increase his independence they had him chosen by another group besides the legislature. If he pandered to anyone, it would be the people rather than to the legislature.

However there are other problems which the EC accommodates

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  • To avoid the problem of trying to conduct a national election of the people, states would send electors of their own choosing for the selecting of the president.
  • To avoid the conflict between large and small states, the number of electors would equal the number of representatives and senators each state gets.
  • To avoid the problem that some electors would be more disenfranchised than others given the distance to travel to the national capital to vote, each elector would cast his electoral votes in his own state capital.
  • To avoid the problem that the EC would not elect a majority candidate, they gave the elector two votes for president and stipulated that one of the two votes could not be cast for candidates from the same state. More than likely the elector would cast a vote for someone in his own state (a favorite son) and the second vote would be for a national figure. This national figure would likely be elected president.
  • What if the EC could not elect a candidate by majority? The president would then be chosen by the House of Representatives (something that many of the framers thought would have often).

So the next time you complain about the Electoral College, complain that you don’t understand it or that it’s not “democratic,” keep in mind that what looks like the work of a mad scientist, actually accomplishes much. For the most part, we have had presidential elections that have resulted in a smooth transition of power, candidates that won by a clear majority. The historical irony has been that while the Electoral College looks monstrous, most of our presidents have not been equally as monstrous. If you think about it, the framers really did have a method to their madness, a robust method that still works.

What Do You Know About The Electoral College?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What original document lays out the provisions of the Electoral College?
    • Declaration of Independence
    • Massachusetts Body of Liberties
    • Magna Carta
    • U. S. Constitution
  2. For a presidential candidate to win, he must receive...
    • a majority of the electoral votes cast.
    • an extrodinary majority of the electoral votes cast.
    • a plurality of the electoral votes cast.
    • a plurality of the popular vote cast.
  3. Each state receives as many electoral votes as they have members in
    • the House of Representatives.
    • in the Senate.
    • the House of Representaties and Senate combined.
    • their state legislature.
  4. In what month do electors cast their votes for president and vice president?
    • October
    • November
    • December
    • January
  5. Where do electors cast their vote?
    • in Washington D.C.
    • in their state's capital.
    • in the voting precinct
    • online

Answer Key

  1. U. S. Constitution
  2. a majority of the electoral votes cast.
  3. the House of Representaties and Senate combined.
  4. December
  5. in their state's capital.

© 2009 William R Bowen Jr


Paul Swendson on November 22, 2011:

I am not a big fan of the Electoral College. In the end, however, the guy who wins the popular vote ends up becoming president anyway. So my complaints in the link below are usually irrelevant. But I will still complain anyway:

toto on July 31, 2011:

The current system of electing the president ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the state-by-state winner-take-all method (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided "battleground" states and their voters. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree already, that, at most, only 14 states and their voters will matter. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. Almost 75% of the country will be ignored --including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign,when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections.

Voter turnout in the "battleground" states has been 67%, while turnout in the "spectator" states was 61%.

Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

Because of the state-by-state winner-take-all electoral votes laws in 48 states, a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in 4 of the nation's 56 (1 in 14 = 7%) presidential elections. The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes. Some insider Republicans believe under the current system in 2012, President Obama could win the electoral vote without winning the popular vote.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on December 14, 2009:

Denno, in an era of democracy, the EC is sometimes seen as an unsavory character. I do believe, like William said, "no system method is perfect" but at the end of the day, I do believe that its track record is a solid one and, to paraphrase Franklin, I consent to the EC because I expect no better and I am not sure that it is not the best! Thanks to the both of you for your comments.

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on December 14, 2009:

Excellent analysis,Bibowen. I strongly favor the Electoral College method; however, no method is perfect. I didn't agree with the presidential term limit that President Truman favored, and I regret that it remains the law. I believe we came dangerously close to losing our democracy in the 2008 presidential election. Rudy Giuliani tried to extend his term as NY mayor after 9/11 and NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg shunned the term limit law to extend his incumbency. President Bush, who won election only through the unsavory decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by right wingers, was in a position to successfully declare that a terrorist threat would make nationwide elections impossible and suspend presidential elections indefinitely. There was a real threat that he could become "president for life" since his "war on terror" was deemed to be endless. Only a strong Congress and a vigilant populace could prevent such action. No Constitutional provision could protect us against such mischief.

Denno66 on December 14, 2009:

James, you nailed the likeness dead on. Bibowen, I'm on the fence about the E C, but it is still an instrument that faithfully elects a President, however ill some may think of it.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on December 13, 2009:

I also value it. Yes, it's "highly contrived" but it also solved a lot of problems for its time and it keeps the states as a player in the federal system, a system that they have been marginalized in. Thanks James, and best wishes.

James A Watkins from Chicago on December 13, 2009:

Your photo reminds me a little bit of George Plimpton. (I mean that in a good way.)

I love the Hub. I am a big fan of the Electoral College. It is all that stands between the real America and an imposed tyranny by the two coasts.

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