Here's Why the US Uses the Electoral College to Elect Presidents


If there was ever a time to decry the electoral process, for Democrats, it was in the 2000 presidential election. After a 36-day recount of Florida voters' ballots, there was a verdict — but to many Americans it didn't seem like a legitimate one.

Though Democratic candidate Al Gore had earned about 540,000 more popular votes than Republican candidate George W. Bush, Bush had edged out Gore with 271 electoral votes to Gore's 266, making him the next president of the United States.

"Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road," Gore said in his concession speech. "Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy." 

That honored institution of democracy is, of course, the electoral college. 

The Founding Fathers laid out the structure and purpose of the electoral college in the U.S. Constitution, though according to the National Archives and Records Administration it's never explicitly named. Nonetheless, the 12th Amendment refers to "electors," chosen officials who (usually) represent popular voters in presidential elections. 

When voters go to the polls in November, they are effectively choosing their electors when they cast their ballots for one of the presidential nominees. If a candidate wins the popular vote, he or she is awarded the entire state's electors. States have different rules for how electors can, or must, vote: 29 states, along with Washington D.C., require electors to vote for the candidate who wins the state's popular vote, while the other 21 allow electors to vote however they like. 

But even in states where electors aren't legally bound to the popular vote, for an elector to deviate from their choice is rare, and the history of electors changing their votes — earning them the namesake "faithless electors" — is pretty murky

Charles Bennett/AP

Still, as in the case of the Bush-Gore presidential election, there have been some more significant hitches in the road. In the 1824 election, John Quincy Adams won without a majority of the popular vote, as did Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888

But if the president represents the people, why don't we decide the election by popular vote?

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton explains the reasoning behind the electoral college: "A small number of persons selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation." 

In essence: The founding fathers worried about the average Joe being informed enough to make such an important decision for the country. 

But the electoral college exists to do more than put the outcome of the presidential election into more capable hands; it's also meant to balance power among small states and large states, a broader anxiety during the nation's founding. 

Each state has an amount of electors that reflects the combined number of senators and representatives in the House, so each state's influence on the election is proportional to its population. 

And to put it into simpler terms: Imagine having to recount popular votes for the entire country in 2000, and not just in Florida.

Even so, not everyone is thrilled with the system. Indeed, large states like New York, California and Texas still have considerable influence in elections due to their number of electors, and candidates historically focus their efforts on swing states, where the vote might go either way.

"It's not simply that giving the presidency to the candidate who receives fewer votes seems undemocratic and unfair," Big Think writer Robert de Neufville wrote last year. "Under the current system, candidates have little incentive to campaign anywhere but in swing states." 

In 2008, the New York Times called the electoral college "outdated," calling it a "quadrennial ritual born in the economics and politics of slavery and the quill-pen era." 

What's more, over the last 200 years there have been 700 attempts to revise or eliminate the electoral college altogether, making it ostensibly the least-liked constitutional mandate. So far, none have succeeded.

And with one of 2016's candidates already virtually decided, outlets are already trying to use the electoral college system to predict the election's victor (Hillary Clinton in this case). 

Those with little faith in the system might only hope it works better than it did 16 years ago. As Gore said of the electoral college four years after his loss: "You win some, you lose some. And then there's that little-known third category."