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History of Electoral Votes and How They Work

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: Amy Carson • updated: 2/25/2014

Ever wonder how electoral votes are determined? Curious about the purpose behind electoral colleges throughout history? Good, you've found the answers.

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    The Establishment of the Electoral College

    Article II, section 1 of the United States Constitution establishes the Electoral College. It states,United States 

    The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows: Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

    Since Constitutional English is no longer the preferred dialect of American citizens, a clarifying question and answer session follows.

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    FAQ on Electoral Votes

    Q: Where is the Electoral College?

    A: The National Archives at Archives.gov states, "The Electoral College, administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is not a place. It is a process that began as part of the original design of the U.S. Constitution."

    Q: Why did the framers of the Constitution create the Electoral College?

    A: The founding fathers created the Electoral College as a compromise between electing the president by popular vote and electing the president by Congressional vote.

    Q: How are Electoral votes determined?

    A: The number of electoral votes per state is equal to the number of its senators plus the number of its individuals in the House of Representatives.

    Q: How are electors determined?

    A: The National Archives and Records Administration states, "The Governor of each State prepares seven original Certificates of Ascertainment listing the persons appointed as electors as soon as possible after the November election."

    Q: Who selects the electors?

    A: In most states the political party's central committee chooses the electors based on public service and candidate affiliation.

    Q: When do the electors vote?

    A: The electors meet in each state. Votes are due by December 24 to the National Archives and Records Administration.

    Q: Do electors have to vote a specific way?

    A: There is no federal law constraining Electoral College voters to vote according to the popular vote of their state. Many states have passed laws binding their electors to vote in a specific manner.

    Q: How many voters are there in the Electoral College?

    A: There are 538 voters in the Electoral College.

    Q: Has an Electoral College voter ever not voted for the candidate he or she was chosen to vote for?

    A: Yes, several times. It occurred most recently in 2004 when a delegate from Minnesota cast a vote for John Edwards instead of John Kerry. It had no effect on the election's outcome.

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    Throughout U.S. History

    The Electoral College has existed since the first presidential election. Here are some critical Electoral College votes throughout U.S. history.

    • 1789 - George Washington won only half the votes cast in the first presidential election. Two states did not participate.
    • 1800 - Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied. The House of Representatives decided the election by voting for Jefferson.
    • 1860 - Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican presidential candidate, won easily, despite not even being on the ballot in southern states.James Monroe administered the ultimate presidential beat down. 

    Presidential Beat Downs

    These presidents won the Electoral College vote in a landslide

    • 1804 - Thomas Jefferson won in a landslide 162-14.
    • 1820 - In 1820, James Monroe administered the ultimate Electoral College beat down, beating John Quincy Adams 231-1. Adams defeat was so embarrassing that "no votes cast" beat him 3-1 (Adams did become president four years later, despite losing the electoral college vote).
    • 1936 - Franklin D. Roosevelt won a second term after blasting Alfred Landon 523-8.
    • 1972 - Richard Nixon began a shortened second term by destroying George McGovern 520-17.
    • 1984 - Ronald Reagan won a second term by crushing Walter Mondale 525-13.

    Controversies

    The Electoral College has not been without controversy.

    • 1824 - Andrew Jackson won a plurality, but lost the election when the House of Representatives voted in John Quincy Adams.
    • 1876 - Although Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and more electoral votes than Rutherford B. Hayes, he did not have a majority of Electoral College votes and the election went to a special council. Hayes won by one vote in an extremely controversial election.
    • 1888 - Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but Benjamin Harrison won the Electoral College vote.
    • 2000 - Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote to George W. Bush.
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    The Future

    The Electoral College has come under attack in recent years. Those against it claim the system is antiquated and established during a time where information was not readily available. Those who want its preservation claim the Electoral College preserves the power of the states, guaranteed in the tenth amendment to the Constitution and that eliminating it would be a violation of states' rights.

    Regardless, an amendment to the Constitution would be necessary to make the change.

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    Sources

U.S. Constitutional Concepts Explained

The United States Constitution forms the foundation of limited government in the United States. It, therefore, behooves every citizen to understand it. Brighthub can help.
  1. Laws Regarding Overriding the Presidential Veto
  2. The Three Branches of US Government
  3. History of Electoral Votes and How They Work

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