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Election 2004
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Election 2004
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The Evolution of the Electoral College

The 2000 U.S. presidential election brought the Electoral College into the spotlight for the first time in many years. Before that election, the Electoral College got so little attention that many American voters thought they voted directly for a President and Vice President on Election Day. In fact, they are actually voting for a slate of candidates for the office of elector nominated by a political group (such as a party), and pledged to support that party's candidates.

How the Electoral College Works

Generally, you won't see the names of the electors anywhere on the voting ballot; in most states, they don't receive public recognition as electors. Once chosen, electors are expected to vote for the candidates of the party that nominated them. Only a small number of times in American history have individual electors not honored their commitment, voting for different candidates than the ones to whom they were pledged. These electors are known as "faithless" or "unfaithful," but their actions have never influenced the outcome of a Presidential election.

The Electoral College was set up in Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution for electing the President and Vice President. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered a number of methods for electing the President, developing the idea of the Electoral College system in an attempt to reconcile differing state and federal interests. It was also favored because it provided a degree of popular participation in the election, gave less populous states some leverage, separated the Presidency from Congress, and generally protected the process from political manipulation.

Originally, each state chose electors equal in number to its representatives and senators. The electors voted for two candidates each, at least one of whom had to be from another state. The person receiving the most votes would become President; the runner-up became Vice President. If no person received a majority, the House of Representatives would choose from the leading three candidates. Today, to become President, a candidate must win 270 electoral votes, an absolute majority. The College currently consists of 538 electors, the total number of representatives and senators, plus 3 electors for the District of Columbia. The electors are chosen on the day of the general election.

Next, the electors in each state cast their votes. In 2004, this vote will take place on December 13. The National Archives and Records Administration has a major responsibility in the process, including the task of ensuring that all 538 electoral votes are accounted for on the Certificates of Vote and are delivered to the Congress to be unsealed and counted on the date of the official tally, January 6, 2005.

Many critics point to flaws in today's Electoral College system. For example, a President can be elected with a majority of electoral votes, even without a majority of popular votes. According to The Reader's Companion to American History,

[r]eformers have urged that the electoral college be abolished in favor of direct popular vote for president and vice president, or that the electoral votes of each state be allotted to the candidates in proportion to the popular vote they receive rather than the present winner-take-all system. Defenders of the electoral college reject the dangers as exaggerated and insist that the system has worked far better than one might expect.

There have been several elections in which the Electoral College system has been questioned, each a special case that needed resolution from Congress. A few of these helped to shape future elections. Learn about the developments below.

Defining Moments in Electoral College History

Election of 1800: Even though they were both Republicans, electors gave both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr an equal number of electoral votes. Technically, Jefferson was the Presidential candidate with Burr running for V.P. and the House settled the election accordingly. However, this tie prompted the 12th Amendment which effectively prevented this from happening again. The Amendment changed the guidelines of the Electoral College so that electors now cast separate votes for President and Vice President. In the event of a tie, the House would choose the President and the Senate would chooses the V.P. This was the first of two times in history that the House of Representatives actually chose the President.

Election of 1824: In this election, there were four candidates with strong support: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Henry Clay. Electoral votes were so divided that no one received a 131 vote majority, although John C. Calhoun did receive enough votes to become Vice President. By the 12th Amendment provisions, the House had the final say, choosing John Quincy Adams, even though Andrew Jackson had more electoral votes. This was the second election in which the House decided on the next President.

Election of 1836: The Whig Party ran three different candidates — William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, and Hugh White — in separate parts of the country. The idea was that their respective regional popularities would ensure a Whig majority in the Electoral College which would then decide on a single Whig ticket. However, the election didn't work in favor of the Whigs; Democratic-Republican candidate Martin Van Buren won an absolute majority of electors. Oddly enough, his running mate Richard Johnson didn't win a majority. The Senate ended up choosing Johnson as V.P. anyway. The tactic of the Whig party was never seriously attempted again.

Election of 1872: Democratic candidate Horace Greeley died after the 1872 election but before electoral votes were counted. Electors ended up splitting their votes among other Democratic candidates, but it doesn't seem that this split was the dividing factor. Republican Ulysses S. Grant won a large majority of electoral votes.

Election of 1876: In the midst of a depression, the Democratic party nominated Samuel J. Tilden, Governor of New York and Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana. The Republicans selected Rutherford B. Hayes, Governor of Ohio and William A. Wheeler of New York. Third party candidates further divided the country. Before the electoral votes of the last few states came in, it appeared that Tilden had won the presidency. But amidst dispute, Congress ended up establishing a special commission to decide the issue in several states. Hayes was elected President even though Tilden had obtained a slight majority of the popular votes, a mere 3% difference. Read more about this election in NOW's feature The Solid South?.

Election of 1888: The incumbent, Democrat Grover Cleveland, won huge popular majorities in several of the 18 states which supported him while Republican Benjamin Harrison won slender majorities in the larger of the 20 states supporting him. The difference was less than 1% of the total, but the popular vote totals added up in Cleveland's favor. In the Electoral College, however, Benjamin Harrison won the election by 65 votes.

Election of 2000: George W. Bush received fewer popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but when the Electoral College cast their votes, Bush had a total 271 electoral votes, beating Gore's total of 266.

Sources: The Federal Election Commission; The National Archives and Records Administration; The Reader's Companion to American History; Thomas H. Neale, "The Electoral College: How it Works in Contemporary Presidential Elections," Congressional Research Service Report for Congress

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