The Electoral College Explained
Origins and Alternate Options
The Electoral College was established in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. It is the system used to elect the President and Vice-President only. An original model, "The Virgin Plan," was first proposed in which congress would choose the president. This plan was ultimately jettisoned due to concerns regarding potential public perceptions of the system as Oligarchical and the limitations such a system might place on the President's autonomy.
The, "Committee of Eleven," proposed an alternative, in which the two offices would be elected by a group of Electors from each state equal to the number of people that state had in The House of Representative and the Senate. This was the foundation for what would become the Electoral College.
While some delegates favored a popular vote, the prevalence of slavery at the time made a consensus on this untenable. The large population of African Americans in the South, who of course lacked suffrage, would give the Northern states an undue advantage since a higher percentage of their populace had the right to vote.
On September 6, 1787 the Electoral College passed with the following provisos and caveats;
1) Each state will appoint of number of electors equal to their number of Representatives and Senators, but these Electors must not hold any office of trust or profit.
2) Congress will choose when they select their electors and the day on which they will vote, and this date will be observed for this purpose annually.
3) Any candidate receiving half of the Electoral votes would become President and the candidate receiving the next highest percentage of votes would become Vice-President.
This original system was premised on the notion that the general public could not be trusted with the gravity of such a decision, as such, originally it was presumed that Electors would vote as they so choose, that President and Vice-President tickets would not be formed, and that a majority would rarely be reached thus allocating the decision to Congress.
Revisions and Alterations
The election of 1796, led to a President and a Vice-President coming from different parties. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr both representing the Democratic-Republican Party tied at 73 electoral votes, since there was no separate vote for President and Vice-President, this stalemate was not easily resolved. These elections led to the 12th amendment, ratified in 1804, requiring electors to cast separate ballots for President and Vice-President.
The 14th Amendment, a reconstructionist amendment, granted , "universal suffrage," amongst males and was bitterly contested by the South and only ratified by them so they could reclaim representation in Congress following the Civil war.
The Electoral College is meant to be an homage to a mix of state-based and population-based government. Just as the Senate is State based, the House is population based. James Madison thought the system would protect against "an interested and overbearing majority" as well the "mischiefs of faction." These two concerns are a distillation of the mistrust in the American public in the election of the Executive Branch.
The Electoral College system works on a state by state, "all or nothing," system (in 48 states at least) in which the popular vote of each state entitles all of the pledged electors (equal to the total number of representative and senators in that state) representing the prevailing party to cast their vote for their party's nominated candidate.
Each state political party selects it's Electors, sometimes through primaries or party conventions, much like the candidates themselves are chosen. Interestingly, the pledge of an Elector to his parties candidate is not binding (although 24 states do have laws to sanction Electors that deviate from their pledge) and indeed there have been instances in which Electors have voted contrary to their party, these have been termed faithless electors.
Election day is the Monday after the first Tuesday in November and President and Vice-Presidential elections are held quad annually. 48 States employ the winner take all system awarding all it's party's Electors based on the popular vote within the state. The candidates receiving a majority of pledged electoral college votes (currently 270 because there are now 435 Representatives and 100 Senators for a total of 535 plus D.C. is counted as a state with 1 Representative and 2 Senators for a total 538) are elected President and Vice-President.
In Maine since 1972 and Nebraska since 1996, the process is slightly different and a definite step away from the electoral college ideology. The Electors representing the Senate are still decided by state-wide popular vote but each district, based on it's popular vote, sends an Elector from the prevailing party.
Electors, as determined by the vote, meet in their state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December where they cast ballots first for the President and then for the Vice-President. The ballots are sent to the President of The Senate, The National Archivist, and to the U.S. District Court Judge where the State Electors assembled.
The votes are tabulated in a Joint session of Congress on January 6th. If a majority was reached this concludes the process. If no Presidential ticket (president and vice-president pairing) receives a majority then the House of representative elects the President with each state, regardless of it's number of representatives, casting only a single vote and the Senate elects the Vice-President with each senator casting a single vote. And so it is possible, even with the long ago passage of the 12th amendment for a President and a Vice-President from different parties to be elected should a majority not be reached thus requiring the two house of congress to have separate elections, one for each office, though this has never happened.
Criticisms of The System
The elections of 1876, 1888, and 200 saw an electoral college winner who did not actually receive a majority of the popular vote. These elections, plus the election of 1824 in which Congress elected the President due to no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes, seem to argue against the principles of Democracy and the importance of one-person, one-vote tenet.
Further the system causes candidates to focus most of their resources on swing states, with a large number of electoral votes and a relatively evenly politically divided populace. Such an arrangement discourages voter turn-out in other states historically favored by one part or the other.
Since the Senate votes are counted equally regardless of state size, the system to some degree favors smaller states. It also, due to the all or nothing procurement of a State's Electors, disadvantages third party candidates. The final criticism is based simply on the complexity of the system. An easy to understand popular vote would likely reinvigorate diminished voter turnout.