The Electoral College
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Excerpt from an original publication: Kimberling, William C. (1992). Essays in Elections The Electoral College. Washington: National Clearinghouse on Election Administration, Federal Election Commission.

by William C. Kimberling, Deputy Director FEC National Clearinghouse on Election Administration

The Evolution of the Electoral College

Since the 12th Amendment, there have been several federal and State statutory changes which have affected both the time and manner of choosing Presidential Electors but which have not further altered the fundamental workings of the Electoral College. There have also been a few curious incidents which its critics cite as problems but which proponents of the Electoral College view as merely its natural and intended operation.

The Manner of Choosing Electors

From the outset, and to this day, the manner of choosing its State's Electors was left to each State legislature. And initially, as one might expect, different States adopted different methods.

Some State legislatures decided to choose the Electors themselves. Others decided on a direct popular vote for Electors either by Congressional district or at large throughout the whole State. Still others devised some combination of these methods. But in all cases, Electors were chosen individually from a single list of all candidates for the position.

During the 1800's, two trends in the States altered and more or less standardized the manner of choosing Electors. The first trend was toward choosing Electors by the direct popular vote of the whole State (rather than by the State legislature or by the popular vote of each Congressional district). Indeed, by 1836, all States had moved to choosing their Electors by a direct statewide popular vote except South Carolina which persisted in choosing them by the State legislature until 1860. Today, all States choose their Electors by direct statewide election except Maine (which in 1969) and Nebraska (which in 1991) changes to selecting two of its Electors by a statewide popular vote and the remainder by the popular vote in each Congressional district.

Along with the trend toward their direct statewide election came the trend toward what is called the "winner-take-all" system of choosing Electors. Under the winner-take-all system, the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes within a State wins all of that State's Electors. This winner-take-all system was really the logical consequence of the direct statewide vote for Electors owing to the influence of political parties. For in a direct popular election, voters loyal to one political party's candidate for president would naturally vote for that party's list of proposed Electors. By the same token, political parties would propose only as many Electors as there were electoral votes in the State so as not to fragment their support and thus permit the victory of another party's Elector.

There arose, then, the custom that each political party would, in each State, offer a "slate of Electors" - a list of individuals loyal to their candidate for president and equal in number to that State's electoral vote. The voters of each State would then vote for each individual listed in the slate of whichever party's candidate they preferred. Yet the business of presenting separate party slates of individuals occasionally led to confusion. Some voters divided their votes between party lists because of personal loyalties to the individuals involved rather than according to their choice for president. Other voters, either out of fatigue or confusion, voted for fewer than the entire party list. The result, especially in close elections, was the occasional splitting of a State's electoral vote. This happened as late as 1916 in West Virginia when seven Republican Electors and one Democrat Elector won.

Today, the individual party candidates for Elector are seldom listed on the ballot. Instead, the expression "Electors for" usually appears in fine print on the ballot in front of each set of candidates for president and vice president (or else the State law specifies that votes cast for the candidates are to be counted as being for the slate of delegates pledged to those candidates). It is still true, however, that voters are actually casting their votes for the Electors for the presidential and vice presidential candidates of their choice rather than for the candidates themselves.

The Time of Choosing Electors

The time for choosing Electors has undergone a similar evolution. For while the constitution specifically gives to the congress the power to "determine the Time of choosing the Electors", the Congress at first gave some latitude to the States.

For the first fifty years of the Federation, Congress permitted the States to conduct their presidential elections (or otherwise to choose their Electors) anytime in a 34 day period before the first Wednesday of December which was the day set for the meeting of the Electors in their respective States. The problems born of such an arrangement are obvious and were intensified by improved communications. For the States which voted later could swell, diminish, or be influenced by a candidate's victories in the States which voted earlier. In close elections, the States which voted last might well determine the outcome. (And it is perhaps for this reason that South Carolina, always among the last States to choose its Electors, maintained for so long its tradition of choosing them by the State legislature. In close elections, the South Carolina State legislature might well decide the presidency!)

The Congress, in 1845, therefore adopted a uniform day on which the States were to choose their Electors. That day - the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in years divisible by four - continues to be the day on which all the States now conduct their presidential elections.

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