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Civics 101: The Electoral College

J.H. Osborne • Aug 27, 2018 at 5:30 PM

When you cast a vote for United States president, are you really voting for your candidate? And what role does your vote play?

This week’s Civics 101 aims to give you some answers:

• When you vote in a presidential election, you don’t cast your ballot directly for the Republican nominee or the Democratic nominee or any other candidate who wants to be president. Instead, you vote for the people who will actually “elect” the next president. They are called “electors” and their names are often on the ballot along with the candidate you prefer. That shows they are pledged to vote for that candidate. But some electors are unpledged.

• This process is at the heart of the Electoral College, established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congressional vote and election of the president by popular vote by qualified citizens. The term “Electoral College” does not appear in the Constitution: Article II of the Constitution and the 12th Amendment refer to “electors,” but not to the “Electoral College.”

• Since the Electoral College process is part of the original design of the U.S. Constitution, it would be necessary to pass a constitutional amendment to change this system. The 12th Amendment substantially changed the process through expansion of voting rights and the use of the popular vote in the states as the method for selecting electors.

• Each state gets one elector for each member of its congressional delegation, and the District of Columbia gets three, which makes a total of 538 electors. A candidate needs 270 votes to become president. 

• Reference sources indicate that over the past 200 years, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. There have been more proposals for constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject. But none have been passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification as a constitutional amendment. Under the most common method for amending the Constitution, an amendment must be proposed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states.

• The American Bar Association has criticized the Electoral College as “archaic” and “ambiguous,” and its polling showed 69 percent of lawyers favored abolishing it in 1987. But surveys of political scientists have supported continuation of the Electoral College. Public opinion polls have shown Americans favored abolishing it by majorities of 58 percent in 1967; 81 percent in 1968; and 75 percent in 1981.

• Administration of the Electoral College is one of the National Archives’ lesser known responsibilities. Until 1950 the Department of State held this responsibility. In that year, President Harry S. Truman gave that role to the archivist, who delegated it to its Office of the Federal Register.

• After each presidential election, the Office of the Federal Register collects and reviews all Certificates of Ascertainment (the names of all the electors and how many votes each slate received). Electors meet in their state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. Afterward, the OFR collects and reviews all Certificates of Vote (whom the electors chose for president and vice president).

• In early January, the votes are counted before a joint session of Congress, which certifies the election.

Sources: The National Archives, Office of the Federal Register, Historian of the Archives Jessie Kratz (writing in “Historian’s Notebook” in the Archive’s Prologue magazine).

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