10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Electoral College
In my Dave Letterman style, here’s the top 10 things most people do not know about the Electoral College.
The electoral college was created as a compromise in just four days in September 1787. The constitutional convention delegates could not decide how the president was to be elected. So they sent the issue to the “Committee of Eleven.”
They decided a select group of appointed people would choose the president, called electors (a reference to how popes were chosen?). Each state would get electors equal to the number of representatives and senators.
Each state’s legislature decides how it appoints electors. The framers thought this the least objectionable choice of President selection. If no candidate gets a majority of the elector votes the House of Representatives chooses the President.
The Framers thought electors would be looking to nothing other than what was best for the nation and be above politics. But after Washington’s presidency, political parties started and electors as independent decision-makers became useless.
Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton wrote in 1824 that they “lost power over their own vote” and were picked “for their devotion to a party.” Electors quickly became “party lackeys and intellectual nonentities,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in 1952.
Electoral college waivers in popularity – depending on if a party thinks they have an advantage using it or not.
In 1796 and elector pledged to John Adams instead voted for Jefferson. Adams won that year 71 electoral votes to 68, in part, because Virginia split its electoral votes by districts.
After that states frequently switched between splitting votes and being winner take all in political maneuvering by political parties. (Massachusetts changed systems in every election between 1796 and 1820). Today 48 states are winner take all with Maine and Nebraska having a district system.
In the 1800 election, Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied electorally – and Burr was Jefferson’s running mate! It took the house 36 votes before Jefferson won.
The 12th Amendment to the constitution in 1804 required electors to distinguish between votes cast for president and vice president, to stop that from happening again.
In 1824 Andrew Jackson won both the popular vote and the electoral college but lost to John Quincy Adams. This was because two other candidates took votes that cost Jackson the majority. The contest went to the House – which chose Adams.
Winners of the popular vote lost the electoral vote in 1876 and 1888, in addition to more recent Bush-Gore and Trump-Clinton elections. Perhaps the most famous picture of electoral college troubles is Harry Truman holding the newspaper announcing his opponents win.
In Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214 (1952), the Supreme Court held it constitutional for states to allow parties to require a pledge to vote for the party’s nominee as an elector, and that it was not a breach of otherwise qualified candidates’ rights to be denied this position if they refused the pledge. Blair did not want to support a candidate advocating civil rights for African Americans.
A faithless elector is a member of the United States Electoral College who does not vote for the presidential or vice presidential candidate for whom they had pledged to vote. That is, they break faith with the candidate they were pledged to and vote for another candidate, or fail to vote.
A pledged elector is only considered a faithless elector by breaking their pledge; unpledged electors have no pledge to break. There have been a total of 165 instances of faithlessness as of 2016, 63 of which occurred in 1872 when Horace Greeley died after Election Day but before the Electoral College convened.
Nearly all have voted for third party candidates or non-candidates, as opposed to switching their support to a major opposing candidate. Here’s a map of states that do and do not bind their electors:
As of 2017, 761 bills have been filed to change the electoral system. This included abolishing it and using a straight popular vote starting in 1816.
The National Popular Vote Compact is an agreement among states to cast all their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote regardless of the vote in their state. This has arisen because it is so hard to amend the U.S. Constitution.
Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states. The last time we got close to getting rid of the electoral college was in 1969 when a bill passed the house with 30 states on board to ratify it.
But a filibuster in the Senate killed the bill and it never was passed.
The Compact bypasses Congress – but it has not taken effect yet. 15 states have entered the compact but it does not take effect, by its terms, unless enough states representing a majority of electoral votes enter the compact.
If that happens, and states abide it, the electoral college will be bypassed. They are 74 votes shy of the majority needed. Will the drama of this election push more states into the compact?
38 states voted for the same party in the last 5 presidential elections 2000-2016. So candidates fight over votes and electors in relatively few states.
We often hear the election will come down to relatively few voters in few states. Sometimes this makes voters think their vote does not matter.
Here’s a map of the US with the states’ size determined by the number of presidential campaign events in 2012.