In the United States the people do not elect the president directly. The men who drew up the Constitution in 1787 were not willing to give this choice to the ordinary citizen. They believed that a group of select citizens called electors-the Electoral College-should pick the president. The person who received the most votes of the electors would become president. The one with the next highest number of votes would be vice-president. But when Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson got exactly the same number of electoral votes in 1800, that system had to be changed. Now each elector votes for one person for the president and another for the vice-president.
The men who wrote the Constitution thought that electors should be allowed to vote as they saw fit. But during John Adams’ term as president, political parties became much stronger than they had been before. The parties nominated condidates for president and vice-president and then picked electors to vote for their party’s choice. The voting of the electors became merely a formality.
Today individual electors are not very important. But the electoral system itself is. And individual electors can become important by going back on their pledges. For example, electors may so dislike their party’s nominee that they vote for someone who is not running, or they may vote as independents instead of as Democrats or Republicans
How the Electoral System Works
According to the Constitution, the state legislatures decide how the electors will be chosen in their states. Today they are chosen the same way in every state. First, each political party in a state nominates a slate (list) of electors. These electors are usually pledged to support the party’s nominee for president and vice president. Each state has as many electors, or electoral votes, as it has members in Congress. In the 1976 election, for example, Alaska had three electors because it had two senators and one representative. New York had 41 electors-two for its senators and 39 for its representatives.
On election day-the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every four years-voters throughout the nation go to the polls to choose the electors in their states. In many states the names of the electors do not even appear on the ballot. The voters see only the names of the candidates for president and vice-president. Nevertheless, voters who favour the Republican (or Democratic) candidate for president actually vote for the Republican (or Democratic) electors in their state. This voting of the people for electors is called the popular vote.
The candidate who receives the most popular votes wins all the electoral votes in a state. The other candidates get none. To be elected president, a candidate needs a majority of all the electoral votes in the country.
In everyone’s mind the election is settled on election day. But the results of the election do not become official until weeks later. The winning electors meet in their state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December. There they vote for president and vice-president. They send the sealed results to Washington, where they are read in the presence of the entire Congress on January 6. The results are then official. Then, on January 20 the president-elect takes the path of office as president of the United States.
Adapted from Book of Knowledges