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Posted by wmmbb in Global Electoral Politics, US Politics.

Americans will vote in November in the presidential election, but it will be the vote in the Electoral College in December that will decide who will be the next president.

The Electoral College has its critics, and a majority of Americans when polled now want direct election of the president. Criticisms appear well founded, as is evidence by the attention that candidates give to swing states in the campaigns, and the hypothetical case that less than 22% of the  electors on the assumption all potential votes in a selection of states could elect the president. This is somewhat of a long shot.  Nonetheless there have been three occasions, the most recent in 2000, when a president was elected without winning the majority of the national votes.

Of course the first president, George Washington was appointed, but you have to start somewhere. At least he adamantly was not following the example of Julius Caesar. Liberty rather than democracy was the coinage of the principle of government, but it was pretty remarkable at the time for  the executive to be independently elected by popular vote, albeit indirectly by electors.

When there are no existing examples, or precedents, unlike the drawn out process of Australian Federation, institutions have to be invented. The Electoral College met the needs of the time. James Madison wrote that the constitution was a mixture of state-based and population-based government. The states had been self-governing colonies. One of the questions is protecting the smaller states. Federalism represented the Republican ideal (hence the Commonwealth of Australia?). You had to get the agreement of the states, and in the case of Virginia for example, which at a later date Robert E Lee was to declare his “country”, consent could not be taken for granted. Virginia voted 79 -69 in favour.

There was a particular problem, which James Madison noted:

“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”

The details of the institutional invention took time to work out, including recognizing that the presidential and vice presidential candidates were on the same ticket. And more recently that Washington DC could for the purposes of the Electoral College be recognized as a state, although it is represented by a non voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Similarly, the US Territories, which include East Samoa and Puerto Rico, with its population of 3.7 million citizens, but who have represented in the Electoral College vote, an extraordinary example of disenfranchisement.

It is reported that there have been numerous examples of attempts to replace the Electoral College with direct voting. Voter suppression would then lose its electoral effectiveness. According to Wikipedia:

The closest the country has ever come to abolishing the Electoral College occurred during the 91st Congress. The presidential election of 1968 ended with Richard Nixon receiving 301 electoral votes to Hubert Humphrey’s 191. Yet, Nixon had only received 511,944 more popular votes than Humphrey, equating to less than 1% of the national total. George Wallace received the remaining 46 electoral votes with only 13.5% of the popular vote.

Representative Emanuel Celler, Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, responded to public concerns over the disparity between the popular vote and electoral vote by introducing House Joint Resolution 681, a proposed Constitutional amendment which would have abolished the Electoral College and replaced it with a system wherein the pair of candidates who won at least 40% of the national popular vote would win the Presidency and Vice Presidency respectively. If no pair received 40% of the popular vote, a runoff election would be held in which the choice of President and Vice President would be made from the two pairs of persons who had received the highest number of votes in the first election. The word “pair” was defined as “two persons who shall have consented to the joining of their names as candidates for the offices of President and Vice President.”

The proposal was supported by the House of Representatives, and then got lost in the procedures of the Senate so that in 1970 the proposal was put to one side and then ended with the completion of the 91st Congress on the 3rd of January 1971. So it did not get to go through the mill of state by state approval, which makes clear that constitutional referenda have the merit when they have popular support can effectively provide necessary institutional change.

The Electoral College never meets in plenary session, although that might have been the original intention, rather it meets in each of the state capitals. All states with the exception of Nevada and Maine their election decide the outcome  on a winner take all basis.  There are 538 electors, with the winning candidates requiring 270 votes. The swing states are critical to the outcome.

The Economist explained in greater detail how the system works:

C.G.P. Grey describes the trouble with the electoral college:

Obviously it is a mistake to consider the total population of the states, rather than the total number of eligible electors.

(So I think the Electoral College, is interesting, and despite it faults, in its beginning it was a remarkable institution, although I have no historical sources to hand, except Alistair Cook’s America and the you tube videos).


  1.  It may be the case that Congress can determine the fate of the Electoral College.
  2. By removing the influence of the swing states, a system of direct election would either allow or require changes in the candidates, the parties and restore in one form or another a wider plurality of electoral opinion ie greater democracy. The pressure would then be on the House of Reps, and perhaps the Senate to be more democratic, although an entrenched federal system, even without the cachet of the late 18th and early 19th centuries should not be underestimated.


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