To win, a presidential candidate must have a majority in the electoral college. Before adoption of the Twelfth Amendment (1804), in the event that no candidate had a majority, the House of Representatives (voting by states, with one vote for each state) was to choose the president from among the five candidates highest on the electoral list. Then, "after the choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President"; in case of a tie the Senate would choose the vice president. The Twelfth Amendment, however, resulting from the confused election of 1800 (see Jefferson, Thomas, and Burr, Aaron) provided that electors vote for president and vice president separately. It also reduced from five to three the number of candidates from among whom the House was to choose—in case no candidate had a majority (only two presidents, Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, have been elected by the House).
In the early days electors were most often chosen by the state legislatures, but with the growth of democratic sentiment popular election became the rule. After 1832 (and until the Civil War) only in South Carolina did the legislature continue to choose electors. In some of the states at first the people voted for electors by congressional districts, with two being elected at large from the whole state, but with the growth of political parties this plan was largely discarded (only Maine and Nebraska currently use it) in favor of the general-ticket system (the one now prevailing), whereby a party needs only a plurality to carry the whole state. Thus in most states a voter casts a ballot for as many electors as the state is entitled to. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires either that the electors be chosen by popular vote or that the general-ticket system be employed.
Electors must be elected on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, as required by a federal law dating from 1845. As a belated result of the disputed election of 1876 involving Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes, the Electoral Count Act of 1887 placed the responsibility of deciding electoral disputes mainly on the states themselves. Congress now counts the votes (a mere formality) on Jan. 6.
Only at the very outset did the electoral college function as planned, and there often has been widespread dissatisfaction with the institution. The outstanding objection is that it has given the nation 14 so-called minority presidents, i.e., presidents who had a majority in the electoral college but lacked it in the total national popular vote—James Polk (1844), Zachary Taylor (1848), James Buchanan (1856), Abraham Lincoln (1860, but not 1864), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), James A. Garfield (1880), Grover Cleveland (1884 and 1892), Benjamin Harrison (1888), Woodrow Wilson (1912 and 1916), Harry S. Truman (1948), John F. Kennedy (1960), Richard M. Nixon (1968, but not 1972), Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996), and George W. Bush (2000). Only Hayes, Harrison, and Bush, however, failed to win a plurality of the popular vote.
Since the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, numerous attempts have been made to alter the electoral college and to change the method of presidential election, but none has succeeded. The popular-vote loss and narrow electoral-college victory of George W. Bush in 2000 again led many to question the appropriateness of the institution in a modern representative democracy. Others continued to voice strong support for the electoral college and its enhancement of the importance of less populous states (by basing the number of a states' electors on its U.S. representatives and senators), fearing that otherwise presidential candidates would focus on more populous states and on the issues important to their voters.
See J. H. Parris and W. S. Sayre, Voting for President (1970); L. P. Longley and A. G. Braun, The Politics of Electoral College Reform (1972); J. Best, The Case Against Direct Election of the President (1975); M. Diamond, The Electoral College and the American Idea of Democracy (1977).
Constitutionally mandated process for electing the U.S. president and vice president. Each state appoints as many electors as it has senators and representatives in Congress (U.S. senators, representatives, and government officers are ineligible); the District of Columbia has three votes. A winner-take-all rule operates in every state except Maine and Nebraska. Three presidents have been elected by means of an electoral college victory while losing the national popular vote (Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000). Though pledged to vote for their state's winners, electors are not constitutionally obliged to do so. A candidate must win 270 of the 538 votes to win the election.
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An electoral college is a set of many electors who are empowered to elect a candidate to a particular office. Often these electors represent different organizations or entities, with each organization or entity represented by a particular number of electors or with votes weighted in a particular way. Many times, though, the electors are simply important persons whose wisdom, it is hoped, would provide a better choice than a larger body. The system can ignore the wishes of a general membership, whose thinking need not be considered.
Germanic law stated that the German king led only with the support of his nobles. Thus, Pelayo needed to be elected by his Visigothic nobles before becoming king of Asturias, and so did Pepin the Short by Frankish nobles in order to become the first Carolingian king. While most other Germanic nations went to make a strictly hereditary system by the first millennium, the Holy Roman Empire could not, and the King of the Romans, who would become Holy Roman Emperor or at least Emperor-elect, was selected by the college of prince-electors from the late Middle Ages until 1806 (the last election actually took place in 1792).
Christianity also used electoral colleges in ancient times, until late antiquity (AD 300-600). Initially, the entire membership of a particular church, both the clergy and laity, elected the bishop or chief presbyter. However, due to various reasons such as reducing the influence of the state or the laity in church matters, election power moved to the clergy alone and, in the case of the Western Church, then solely to a college of the canons of the cathedral church. In the Pope's case, the system of people and clergy was eventually replaced by a college of the important clergy of Rome, which eventually evolved into the College of Cardinals. Since 1059, it has had exclusive authority over papal elections.
Some nations with complex regional electorates elect a head of state by means of an electoral college rather than a direct popular election. The United States is the only current example of an indirectly elected executive president, with an electoral college made up of electors representing the 50 states and one federal district. Each state has a number of electors equivalent to its total Congressional representation (in both houses), with the non-state District of Columbia receiving three electors and other non-state territories having no electors. The electors generally cast their votes according to the winner of the popular vote in their respective states, but in many cases are not required by law to do so.
Similar systems are used or have been used in other presidential elections around the world. For example, the short-lived Confederate States of America (1861-1865) provided for election of its president in virtually the same manner as set forth in the U.S. Constitution. The President of Finland was elected by an electoral college between 1919 and 1987. In Germany and India, the members of the lower house of Parliament together with an equal number of members from the state parliaments elect the non-executive President of the Republic, while in Italy the presidential electoral college is composed of the members of both houses of Parliament and three members elected by each of the regional assemblies.
Another type of Electoral College is used by the British Labour Party to choose its leader. The college consists of three equally weighted sections: the votes of Labour MPs and MEPs; the votes of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies; and the votes of individual members of Constituency Labour Parties.
During Brazil's military rule period, the president was elected by an electoral college constituting senators, deputies, state deputies, and lawmakers in the cities.
Ecclesiastical electoral colleges abound in modern times, especially among Protestant and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. In the Eastern rite churches, all the bishops of an autocephalous church elect successor bishops, thus serving as an electoral college for all the episcopal sees.