The American Electoral System

The American electoral system is essentially based on political efficiency and partial representation. Political efficiency may be defined as expedient balance between imminent interests. Partial representation means instructional politics. These two principles govern the interest-aggregation process, and in general, political dynamics in democratic countries.

At the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia Plan was used as the basis for discussion and debate. The Virginia Plan called for the executive to be chosen by the legislature (by open ballot). Delegates from the majority of states agreed to this method of election. However, the so-called Committee of Eleven formed to labor out details which included the mode of election of the executive. The committee recommended that the election be by a group of people apportioned among the states in the same numbers as representatives in the US Congress. This group of people would be chosen by each state, in a way determined by the Legislative branch.

Gouverneur Morris explained the factors for the change. Among the factors were as follows 1) fear that the president would be chosen by a small group of men who met regularly in evening sessions, 2) equal parity among states, and 3) popular elections as mediums for extreme and irresponsible demagoguery. On the 6th of September 1787, the Convention approved the Committees proposal with some opposition from delegates who preferred popular election. The move was based on the belief that the state government must be a derivative of state sovereignty. As ONeil argued

The theory of State sovereignty was assumed as true and valid by all states. The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 declares that the people of that commonwealth have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent State with certain limitations there laid down (3).

The move was also based on reactionary ideology. Southern politicians feared that the popular vote method would lead waste of ballot. As ONeil correctly observed

One reason, purely sectional, existed which made a popular election impossible. The slavery problem was an important element in the framing of any plan. The Southern states, with their system of slave labor, would be threatened with the loss of their relative influence in the nation, because a large portion of their population could not be trusted with the ballot (4).

During the framing of the Constitution, the electoral system was institutionalized, with its efficient guiding principles and framework. However, it was not without opposition. Some of the founding fathers opposed the move, declaring it as an offshoot of aristocratic ordeal  the fruit of reckless political estimation. However, as ONeil noted

A slight reflection, however, will convince them that this mode is in perfect harmony with the spirit of the United States Constitution. With the exception of the members of the House of Representatives, no person holding office under the United States government derives his appointment directly from the people (2).

The Term Electoral College
The term Electoral College was never used to describe the general vote of the electors. It was not until in the 1800s that the term electoral college came into use as the shared designation for the electors chosen to cast votes for the President and Vice President. In 1845, it was formally written into law.

The Nature of the Electoral College in its Early Conception.
The composition, nature, and role of the Electoral College are defined in the US Constitution, prior to the passage of the 12th Amendment. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the US Constitution states

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.

In Section 1, Clause 4, the Congress is tasked to determine the time of choosing the electors, and the day on which they shall cast their votes. Note that the day shall be the same throughout the country. In Clause 3 of the same section, it is determined that

The President and Vice President were to be chosen by the electors. Unlike the present system, each elector voted for two people for President, rather than one vote for President and one vote for Vice President. To become President, a candidate had to have more votes than any other and must have received votes from a majority of the electors. After the choosing of the President, the person with the most electoral votes among the remaining candidates would become the Vice President. If no one received a majority of the votes, the decision would be made by the House of Representatives.

The form of the Electoral College was based upon several assumptions of the Framers of the Constitution 1) each state should employ the district system of allocating electors, 2) independent judgment would be observed in the casting of vote of all electors, 3) candidates would not pair together on the same ticket, and 4) the system would rarely create a winner, sending the election itself to Congress. The framers of the Constitution intended the Electoral College simply as a body that would nominate candidates from which Congress could select a President and Vice President. Each state government was free to have its own arrangements for selecting its electors.

With the rise of political parties and nationally coordinated election campaigns, the system complicated the 1796 and 1800 elections. In the 1796 election, John Adams was elected President, and Thomas Jefferson, Vice President. In 1800, Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the first place. Since all votes were for president, Burrs votes were technically for him even though he was the partys second option. The Congress remained deadlock for 35 ballots as neither candidate received the majority vote. To resolve the issue, Alexander Hamilton declared his support for Jefferson. Congress elected Jefferson President on the 36th ballot.

To avoid this incident from occurring in the future, the US Congress proposed the 12th Amendment. Each elector could only cast one vote for President and one vote for Vice President. The 12th amendment superseded Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution. It was adopted in 1804.
Constitutional Theory behind the Electoral System

The founding fathers accepted the notion that the President and Vice President are elected as executives of a confederation of independent states. In short, in contrast to popular election of members of Congress, the election of both the President and Vice President must be indirect. James Madison argued that the Constitution was created to be a combination of the state-based and population-based government. The US Congress should have two houses the state-based House of Senate and the population-based House of Representatives. The President would be elected by a combination of the two methods.

Madison was fearful of the growing cynicism of factions within the government. He defined faction as a group of citizens (either a majority or minority) who are united by some common or shared impulse of passion or interest detrimental to the rights of other citizens, in general, to the interests of the community. In Republican governments, factions would be generally curtailed because voter rights and powers are widely distributed. In short, the power of the faction would be lessened under a mixed-state set-up of government. In practice, this was short of impossible. As ONeil noted

A sovereign nation and a limited national government were thought impossible. In rightfully opposing all projects of consolidation of the powers of sovereignty, they naturally fell into the error of opposing plan, which tended to the strengthening of the bonds of union, and the developing of a broader national spirit. Jealous opposition to the granting of too much power to the general government led them to oppose a plan electing a President which would make him the representative of the whole nation (4).
Mechanics of the System

When a citizen votes for a presidential candidate, that citizen is really instructing the electors to cast their votes for the same candidate. Suppose that the citizen vote for a Republican candidate. The citizen, in essence, is voting for an elector who will be pledged to vote for the Republican candidate. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all the pledged votes of the states electors.

Now, each state gets a number of electors equal to its members in the House of Representatives and one for each of its two senators. The District of Columbia gets three electors. State law determines how electors are chosen. In general though, they are selected by the political party committees within the states.

A state with eight electors would cast eight votes. Currently, there are 538 electors. The majority vote is equal to 270 (requirement to be elected). In general, because Electoral College Representation is based on congressional allocation, states with larger populations get more Electoral votes. Suppose that none of the candidates win the required 270 electoral votes, the 12th Amendment require the election to be decided by the House of Representatives. Combined votes of each state are equivalent to one vote. A simple majority is required to be elected.

It is possible for an elector to defect and not vote for the partys candidate, because the Constitution does not require them to do so. However, such change in political attitude rarely affects the outcome of the election. In some states, defector electors are prohibited from casting their votes.

Nomination, Disqualification, and Meetings of Electors
State political parties nominate candidates for electors months prior to the Election Day. The US constitution delegates to the state the authority for nominating and choosing its electors. In some states, electors are nominated through primaries. In some states, electors are nominated through party conventions. In other states, campaign committees of each candidate name their candidates for presidential elector.

The Constitution prohibits person holding a federal office from being elected or appointed as elector. Note that a person who holds an office has sworn an oath to support the United States Constitution in order to hold either a state or federal office. When such person serves in the Electoral College, such individual is in theory rebelling against the United States. The congress though may remove this function by two-thirds vote in each house.

State legislatures determine how its electors are to be chosen. All states choose electors by popular election on the date specified by federal law. Forty eight states and Washington D.C. utilize the winner take all method  each awarding its electors as a single bloc. In other states, state legislatures select one elector within each congressional district by popular vote, and select the remaining two by statewide election.

In the short-ballot system, voters choose among a list of candidates for the associated elector. At present, only a few states list the names of the electors on the ballot. In other states, the voter is required to write-in names of candidates for elector.

On Election Day, the electors meet in their respective state capital to cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for President and Vice President. Unlike the College of Cardinals, the Electoral College does not meet as one body. Congress has constitutional authority to regular the procedures in use. The election certification official opens the meeting and read the Certificate of Ascertainment. The document states the name of the chosen electors. Then, there is the selection of a president of the meeting. Sometimes, the electors choose a secretary, to take the minutes of the meeting.

At the balloting time, the electors choose people to act as tellers. Each elector submits a ballot with the name of a candidate for President. The tellers count the ballots and announce the result. Then the casting of the vote for Vice President follows.

After the voting is complete, the electors certify the Certification of Vote. This document states the number of electoral votes cast for both the President and Vice President. Copies are sent to the Senate President. Staff member from the Vice President collects the certificates for the joint session of Congress. The Certificates are arranged in alphabetical order. The Congress declares the winner of the election in the joint session.

The present electoral system of the United States is essentially based on the belief that the President and Vice President are executives of a confederation of independent states. As such, they cannot be directly elected by the people. The advantages of this system are quite obvious. First, it prevents the concentration of power in urban areas. Second, it maintains the federal character of the country. Third, it strengthens the status of minority groups. Fourth, it encourages political stability (political polarization). Fifth, it isolates election problems. And lastly, it maintains a clear line of succession.

However, the system has not without criticisms. One criticism states that the electoral system destroys the essence of democratic vote, or in general, the true conception of popular sovereignty. A nation without true sovereignty cannot be nation, as what Burke would argue. In essence, the electoral system enhances the aristocratic values of a predicated political system.


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