Today’s post originally appeared in the 2012 Summer Issue of Prologue magazine, and was written by Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero.
The Electoral College. Established 1787.
It isn’t really a college, and the electors aren’t tenured professors.
The electors are really voters, and their votes count in a very big way.
The electors were created by the Constitution to do only one thing: elect the President and Vice President of the United States. The Electoral College became part of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, when delegates assembled to devise something to replace the Articles of Confederation.
Some delegates wanted Congress to choose the President, but that would have upset the balance of power among the three branches of government. Others called for direct popular vote, but that would have left the decision in the hands of ill-informed voters who knew little about politicians outside their home state.
So they created electors. And they hoped the electors would be some of brightest and best informed people who would base their decisions on the candidates’ merit. (Each state gets as many electoral votes as it has members in the Senate and House.)
Today, the Electoral College’s activities are overseen by the National Archives. We delegate this duty to our Office of the Federal Register, which every day publishes all the laws, regulations, and rules of the U.S. Government.
The Federal Register staff has been preparing for this duty for months, making sure officials in each state and the District of Columbia know what to do and when to do it, long before election day.
When you do go to the polls in November, you actually vote for a slate of electors pledged to vote for particular candidates for President and Vice President.
Some states require electors to vote for the candidate they’ve pledged to support. Other states do not have this requirement, and electors can vote for anyone they want, even if they’ve pledged to vote for a particular candidate.
The electors meet in their respective state capitals in mid-December and sign their ballots, which are then sent to Congress and the Federal Register.
Officials at the Register open their set and certify that the ballots are in proper order and are genuine—so there are no problems when an identical set is opened before a Joint Session of Congress in early January.
After Congress counts the votes, the candidate with a clear majority—270 out of 538—is elected. If no one gets a majority, the election goes to Congress to resolve. But the House has elected the President only twice, in 1801 and 1825, and the Senate has chosen the Vice President only once, in 1837.
In all but two states, the winner of the popular vote gets all the state’s electoral votes. But not in Maine and Nebraska. The statewide winners receive two electoral votes (representing its two senators) and the winners of each of the congressional districts receive one electoral vote per district.
In 2000, Americans discovered, for the first time since 1876, that the popular vote winner isn’t always the electoral vote winner. Then, Vice President Al Gore received about a half-million more popular votes nationwide than Texas Governor George W. Bush. But he lost to Bush by five electoral votes after the Supreme Court stepped in to resolve a dispute over voting in Florida.
The Federal Register staff has not always had an easy time in getting ballots in order for Congress in time for the counting. In 2004, it had to send back a couple of state certificates because they didn’t bear the state seals. One year, the staff had to call state troopers to track down a governor to make sure the signed ballots arrived on time.
The electoral votes are counted in a joint session of Congress in early January, as specified by the Constitution, and the new President and Vice President take office at noon on January 20.
Despite problems, and despite calls for abolition or reform, legislation for an amendment to abolish the Electoral College has not been seriously considered in Congress for nearly 40 years.
A new Electoral College will be established this fall, and electors will meet in mid-December to cast their ballots. At the Federal Register, our staff will be standing by, ready to do the quadrennial honors.
Your role in all this: Vote!
David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States