The American process for electing presidents is, at its heart, a federalist one. There is no centralized national popular vote for United States president. Instead, elections are conducted in a non-centralized fashion, on a state-by-state basis. This unique presidential election process is colloquially referred to as the “Electoral College,” although that phrase does not appear in the United States Constitution.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention knew that they would need a special presidential election process if every American were to be represented fairly. The nation was simply too large and diverse for anything else. Indeed, the topic of presidential election consumed much of the delegates’ attention as they hammered out a new form of government during that long, hot summer in Philadelphia. Two main ideas were on the table: a national popular vote versus legislative selection.
The former idea was opposed by small-state delegates. “[People] will generally vote for some man in their own State,” Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman argued, “and the largest State will have the best chance for the appointment.” Other small-state delegates voiced similar concerns.
On the other hand, legislative selection of the president could not gain traction, either. The delegates worried about the prospect of Congress choosing the president. They believed strongly that power should be separated among legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Would the president be truly independent if he were reliant on members of the House of Representatives and the Senate for his election and re-election?
In the end, the Electoral College emerged as a compromise between the large and small states, and it reflected the compromises that had already been made in the composition of the national legislature: In the Electoral College, each state is represented by the same number of electors as it has members of Congress, both in the House (with representatives apportioned by population) and the Senate (with equal representation for each state).
The Constitution gives states quite a bit of discretion in how they allocate these electors, although they obviously may not violate some other constitutional provision in the process. (A state could not, for instance, refuse to let women vote when men are allowed to do so.) Within these parameters, however, states are the driving force behind presidential elections: The states, not the federal government, decide how their own priorities will be represented in the selection of electors and in the presidential election system.
States have used their discretion in various ways throughout history. During the first several presidential elections, many state legislatures appointed electors, directly, without reference to a popular vote within the state. Other legislatures chose electors from a short list created by voters. Still others created special districts for the selection of electors. Some states have bucked the national parties and put their own candidates on ballots. State legislatures retain this authority to do what is best for their states; however, in modern times, all state legislatures have chosen to blend democracy and federalism into a two-part election cycle.
Part One of the election occurs on Election Day in November. On this day, 51 purely democratic elections are held all across the country: one election in each state, plus one in the District of Columbia. The purpose of these elections is to identify which presidential electors will represent each state. These elections are “one person, one vote” elections for a statewide office (elector), just like a gubernatorial election.
At this time, most states have chosen to award all their electors to the winner of the statewide vote. Thus, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in California in 2016, all 55 of California’s electors were Democratic electors who supported Clinton. Most states abide by this winner-take-all process, but Maine and Nebraska are two exceptions: They allocate their electors by congressional district. The two remaining electors (representing each state’s two United States senators) are awarded to the winner of the statewide vote.
When these 51 purely democratic statewide elections are complete, 538 presidential electors will have been chosen. These electors will go on to represent their states in Part Two of the election—a federalist election among the states, as represented by their electors. This election is held in December. It typically gets much less media attention than the voting on Election Day, but it is this December vote—not the November vote—that determines who is the next president. The Constitution provides that the candidate who gets a majority of presidential electors (currently 270) will also win the White House. If no candidate obtains a majority, then a back-up election procedure in the House of Representatives will choose the president. In the House election, each state delegation gets one vote.
The unique blend of democracy and federalism in America’s presidential election has earned the criticism of some. Electoral College opponents strive for a system of simple, popular democracy that would combine votes for a candidate across state boundaries. They claim such a change is needed to prevent “wasted votes” when a ballot is cast in the “wrong” state. As this argument goes, a citizen’s vote should not be “wasted” simply because he is voting Democratic in a red state or Republican in a blue one. Electoral College proponents note the state-by-state nature of the presidential election system and respond that these votes were not “wasted.” They were votes cast on the losing side of a statewide election. Every election has winners and losers, and a statewide election for presidential electors is no exception.
Electoral College opponents also argue that swing states get too much attention, but they don’t address the counterargument: the identity of safe and swing states is constantly changing. Historically speaking, candidates cannot take safe states for granted without feeling the ramifications at the polls.
Indeed, the unique blend of federalism and democracy in the Electoral College provides the country with many benefits that frequently get taken for granted.
First, the system encourages presidential candidates to build national coalitions of voters. Candidates cannot focus too exclusively on regional majorities or special interest groups. Polling large margins in isolated regions of the country will doom a candidacy to failure. Instead, a candidate must win simultaneous, concurrent majorities in many states nationwide. Historically speaking, such victories tend to be achieved by the candidate who does the best job of reaching out to a wide variety of voters in many different parts of the country.
The race between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison in 1888 demonstrated this dynamic. The incumbent Cleveland’s candidacy was perceived as a southern one, mostly benefiting southern voters. When election results came in, he had won the national popular vote, but he lost the electoral vote. The result stemmed from the lopsided nature of his support: In six southern states, Cleveland won more than 72 percent of the votes cast. He did not do nearly as well anywhere else. The Electoral College that year successfully prevented six southern states from choosing a president for the rest of the country.
Similar dynamics existed in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote but lost the electoral vote. Twenty percent of her total tally came from only two states: New York and California. Once those states are removed from the national total, Donald Trump leads by more than 3 million votes. Ironically, a decision made by the Clinton campaign contributed to the lopsided result. In the final weeks of the campaign, Clinton became worried that she was about to win the Electoral College but lose the national popular vote. The campaign decided to spend resources driving up the popular vote in “safe” areas where she already felt sure she was winning. Yet Clinton would have spent her time more wisely in some of the so-called “blue wall” states that she ultimately lost. The Electoral College does not reward an overfocus on one part or one narrow demographic of the country.
The Electoral College provides another benefit that tends to go unnoticed: It controls the effects of fraud and error on national vote totals. Because of the Electoral College, an election cannot be stolen unless several things come together simultaneously. First, the election needs to be close at the national level. Second, one or a handful of states need to also have close vote totals. Third, dishonest individuals must be able to predict, in advance, which states will be close and where stolen votes will matter. This is harder than it sounds. But if one person can make such a prediction, then others will as well. The state will be closely watched.
Without the federalist Electoral College, these dynamics would be altered. Any vote stolen in any part of the country would always affect the national tally. Dishonest people could steal votes anywhere, even where it is easy—perhaps a very blue California precinct or a very red Texas one—yet these stolen votes would affect the national outcome. Fraud would be rampant because it is impossible to closely watch every precinct in the nation simultaneously.
The Electoral College fixes this problem because it is much easier to focus on a handful of potentially problematic areas. When problems do occur, they are isolated to one or a handful of states.
An American historian once wrote of the Founders’ views on their presidential election system: “[F]or of all things done in the convention,” Max Farrand wrote, “the members seemed to have been prouder of that than of any other, and they seemed to regard it as having solved the problem for any country of how to choose a chief magistrate.”
Best, Judith A. 1996. "The Choice of the People? Debating the Electoral College". Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; Edwards, George C., III. 2019. "Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America," 3rd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Hardaway, Robert M. 1994. "The Electoral College and the Constitution: The Case for Preserving Federalism". Westport, CT: Praeger; Koza, John R., et al. 2013. "Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote". 4th ed. Los Altos, CA: National Popular Vote Press; Best, Judith A. 1996. "The Choice of the People? Debating the Electoral College". Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; Edwards, George C., III. 2019. "Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America," 3rd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Hardaway, Robert M. 1994. "The Electoral College and the Constitution: The Case for Preserving Federalism". Westport, CT: Praeger; Koza, John R., et al. 2013. "Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote". 4th ed. Los Altos, CA: National Popular Vote Press; Longley, Lawrence D. and Neal R. Peirce. 1999. "The Electoral College Primer 2000". New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Ross, Tara. 2019. "Why We Need the Electoral College". Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway; U.S. Congress, Senate, "Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary". Hearings on S.J. Res. 28: Direct popular election of the President and Vice President of the United States. 96th Cong. (1979).
Last updated: Oct. 2020