The Explainer: Electoral College

That was a scene from the HBO mini series, “John Adams,” showing the momentous inauguration of George Washington as first President of the United States. As Americans prepare to elect a new president in November, non-Americans are once more confronting a peculiarity of American democracy, their electoral college.

By popular demand, tonight we explain the Electoral College in America. I’m Manolo Quezon.


I. Give me liberty but not for the other guy


We like to keep innovating on this show and just yesterday, we started something new.

Besides our blog, which publishes our script, complete with links and even YouTube videos of our show, we now have a Plurk account. If you Plurk, add me up, my username is mlq3.

And so I Plurked an invitation for people to put forward their questions concerning the American Electoral College. Thanks to your questions, we’re able to give you everything you wanted to know about it but were afraid to ask.

As always, let me start with our own national experience to come to terms with the experiences of other peoples, politically.

The two gentlemen you see in this Philippines Free Press editorial cartoon from 1933 were lifetime rivals but when they decided to run together for the presidency and vice-presidency in our first national election in 1935, they did so in a strange way.

That is, strange to us. They were candidates who did not campaign, because to their generation it was unseemly, ungentlemanly, unstatesmanlike, to campaign for the highest offices in the land.

Quezon and Osmena maintained this standoffish attitude in 1935 and  when they ran for re-election in 1941, but by 1946, when Osmena ran for the presidency in his own right, the times had changed beyond all recognition.

This is one of the most famous Philippines Free Press covers of all time; it shows the old Osmena trying to be an old school candidate while his rival, Manuel Roxas, was running a fast and furious campaign –a modern campaign. Osmena gave only one speech; Roxas personally barnstormed the country. Osmena lost. Roxas ushered in the political campaigns we take for granted today.

In America, their leaders, too went through a phase where they thought that national leadership required never being so obviously ambitious as to actively campaign for the presidency among the people.

In truth that tradition lasted almost a century and a half; but what didn’t last very long was the idea that you could be standoffish even with your political peers.

We often hear that politics is the art of the possible. We like to think that those who have had the privilege of midwifing a nation into being, are armed with an uncommon vision; that they were, somehow, grander than the leaders that succeeded them.

Both Joseph Ellis, in his fascinating book “Founding Brothers,”

And David McCullough, in his bestelling biography “John Adams,” the basis of the docudrama clip you saw, argue, however, that in America, their founding generation were all too human.  They were products of their time and yet so much like us, today: insecure, ambitious, confused, winging it and haggling amongst themselves.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they declared, “that all men are created equal,” but of course equality to them meant propertied, educated white males, certainly not women, never blacks, and only, in a limited sense, their fellow whites who weren’t propertied and belonging to the professional class.

Joseph Ellis in his book says that the thinking of the founding generation of America evolved, in the space of a few years, from thinking of their country as primarily the states in which they were born, to thinking of their country as something larger, called the United States of America.

But they had to wrestle with the dilemma of whether their larger country, America, should have a powerful government and how much power should be left in the hands of the states they considered their homes.

Two centuries of constitutional success often obscures the fact that the Americans have actually had two constitutions. Their first was known as the Articles of Confederation. It was proposed in 1777, the year after the various states came together to proclaim their independence from Britain; it was finally finished in 1781 but proved so unwieldy and ineffectual that it was replaced with the present Constitution of the United States in 1787.

Ellis describe, in fascinating detail, the debates that took place, formally in the Constitutional Convention, and informally in letters, meetings, and the press, concerning the manner in which the future head of state of the United States should be elected.

Essentially, the main fear many drafters had, was of mob rule. They didn’t trust the people just as they didn’t want to establish a presidential office that would have the attributes of a king. But they had to give the ordinary people –ordinary being white males of course- some sort of say and so they compromised on a system called the Electoral College. It would establish an indirect democracy.

According to Randall C. Holmbe of the Mises Institute, as originally designed, it worked this way. The state legislatures would pass their own rules, to select electors. Each state would have as many electors as they had congressmen and senators put together, but no elector could be a congressman, senator, or anyone holding a government position.

The electors from each state would then meet in their respective states, and vote, by ballot, for two people, one of whom must not be a resident of their state (this was to enforce the national nature of the election). Then all the states’ selections would be canvassed by the US Senate, and if someone received a majority of the votes, he would become President, and the runner-up, Vice-President.

However, if no one received a majority of the votes, the Senate would then transmit the list of the top five candidates, to the House of Representatives. The House would then elect the President of the United States, with the runner-up becoming Vice-President.

As Holmbe puts it, would you like to read?

[It] is apparent that the system of having electors meet in their own states rather than all together as one group serves another purpose: it makes it more difficult for the electoral college to arrive at a consensus when there is in fact no consensus candidate…

…The Founders envisioned that in most cases no candidate would end up receiving votes from a majority of the electors, so the president would end up being chosen by the House of Representatives from the list of the five top electoral vote recipients.

So the people could vote for their state legislators, but it would be the state legislature that selected members of the electoral college. The Electoral College, however, prohibited from meeting nationally, would more likely than not be unable to elect a president and the choice, based on the top five candidates, would actually fall on the House –whose members were elected by the people. Very indirect, and by so doing, serving as a brake on the sort of popular passions that gave conservative, propertied individuals like Washington nightmares.

But it wasn’t until the 1820s that American states began to permit the electorate to have a direct hand in electing the state delegations to the Electoral College. They did so by establishing what are known as the restricted general ticket system. Since 1832, this has pretty much been the way state delegations to the Electoral College are selected.

This works by voters actually voting not, say, for John McCain or Barak Obama, but for a bloc of electors pledged to vote for a particular slate in the Electoral College.

That bloc is equal to the number of congressmen and senators each state’s entitled to in the US Congress, and that number, in turn, is determined by the population of each state, formalized every census.

Every state (plus three electors for the only non-state entitled to participate, the Federal Capital, the District of Columbia or Washington D.C.), has a winner-take-all system. That is, the entire bloc of each state ends up pledged entirely to the presidential and vice-presidential slate that wins the popular vote, although technically, individual electors can cast their vote for whomever they please –but this happens rarely. 24 states actually provide punishments for “faithless electors,” those who break their pledge to vote for candidates based on the state results.

Only the states of Maine and Nebraska are different: they give two electoral votes to the statewide winner and one electoral vote to the winner in each of their congressional districts.


This Wikipedia map shows you the various Electoral College votes of the various states.

At present, there are 538 total votes in the Electoral College. For a majority to be achieved, a presidential candidate must obtain 270 electoral votes.

So it happens like this. Every four years, on  the Tuesday after the first Monday of November, Americans go to vote. Their votes determine which candidates get the pledges of the state electors.

On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the pledged electors then meet in the state capitols of their respective states. They cast separate ballots for President and Vice-President.

After the new year, the incumbent Vice-President of the United States, who is ex officio President of the United States Senate, presides over the canvassing of the Electoral College votes. If there’s a majority –the magic number of 270 votes- for each office to be filled, the President and Vice-President elect are proclaimed; if not, then the selection is given over to the House of Representatives.

When we return, how presidential elections are actually two numbers’ games.




That was from a PBS documentary and it shows what could have been, if there’d been television back in the early years of American politics.  It’s based on the real rhetoric of the times.

At first, though, the presidential campaign was far from being a heatedly partisan affair.

George Washington had such a colossal reputation, that in the first two presidential elections of the USA, in 1789 and 1792, he won by a landslide without anyone bothering to put up a serious fight.

But by 1796, Washington had bowed out, establishing an informal tradition of a two-term presidency that persisted until 1940.

For two terms, like Quezon and Osmena, Washington and Adams had basically refused to lift a finger to put themselves forward for high office.

But when Adams ran for the presidency, he faced a stiff fight; for something new had emerged on the scene, something Washington himself had hoped to God would never materialize: party politics.

This led to a difficulty based on the original design of the presidential election process. The winner was supposed to become President, the runner-up, Vice-President. This was because everyone was assumed to be serving the country.

But what happens when your affiliation becomes primarily that of belonging to a party? Washington had had to put together a party to support his administration and against his party, the Federalists, the opposition formed the Democratic Party –confusingly enough, in its earliest years known as the Republicans- with Thomas Jefferson as their standard bearer.

Each party, then, after Washington, put forward candidates. Yet whoever ended up President would have the runner-up as his VP.

You would thus have a President with a Vice-President opposed to everything he did, all the time. This is what happened when John Adams, a Federalist or supporter of strong central government, was elected President with Thomas Jefferson, a states’ rights advocate, coming in second and so ending up Vice-President.

Jefferson immediately set out to subvert every initiative of Adams and spent four years ensuring that four years later, in 1800, he, Jefferson, would defeat Adams.

But Jefferson in turn, didn’t want to face having whoever challenged him for the presidency doing to him as he, Jefferson, had done to Adams.

This is why, in 1804, the system was changed so that the electors voted separately for the President and Vice-President. And as we saw in part one, since the 1820s, each state has established the principle that electors are no longer elected by state legislators, but instead, elected by the electorate in each state.

The end result of this evolution is that the race for the presidency becomes two contests.

The first is to get the public to vote for each slate, in heavy enough numbers to win the electoral college delegations of each state.

The second is to win the right combination of states.

This map in Really Clear Politics shows you how the campaign plays out in America. It’s the famous red state, blue state divide, based on a handy color-coding system based on the popularly-identified colors of the two major parties: Red for Republicans, Blue for the Democrats.

Remember, the US Constitution requires whoever ends up President to have a majority of the votes cast in the Electoral College.

If a candidate fails to obtain a majority in the Electoral College, remember, too, that this means the House of Representatives ends up choosing the President.

This has only happened twice, in 1800, when Jefferson defeated John Adams’ bid for reelection, and in 1824, when John Adams’ grandson, John Quincy Adams, was elected President.

More often than not, this means whoever wins the popular vote also wins the electoral college vote. But three times in American history, someone who actually lost the popular vote, ended up President:

The first time was in 1876 when there were a total of 369 electoral votes available with 185 needed to win.

This bearded fellow, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, with 4,036,298 popular votes won 185 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote with 4,300,590 votes, but won only 184 electoral votes. So Hayes was elected president.


It happened again in 1888 when  Republican Benjamin Harrison won 233 electoral votes. Even though Democrat Grover Cleveland, won the popular vote but got only only 168 electoral votes.


And most famous of all was in 2000 when George W. Bush, won 271 electoral votes even though Al Gore, won the popular vote but won only 266 electoral votes.


Joseph Ellis in a Wall Street  Journal article also says there have been occasions when candidates were elected President with less than 50% of the national vote.

This happened at least seven times in the 19th Century, and three times in the 20th Century: in 1912 when Woodrow Wilson won a three-cornered fight, in 1968 with Nixon’s victory, and in 1992 when Bill Clinton won. But in each case, they won the required majority in the Electoral College.

So how does this happen? How can you win a plurality, though not get 50% of the popular vote, and still get the Constitutionally-ordained over fifty percent of the Electoral College Vote?

Take a look at this chart, from












New York






New Jersey




North Carolina











OK, so you need 270 votes in the Electoral College to get a majority and become President. Now since 11 of the 12 states in this chart accounts for exactly 270 votes, a candidate could win these states, lose the other 39, and still be elected.

Some Americans ask if this is fair.

Joseph Ellis, in an essay titled, ”A dinosaur worth saving,”


had this to say. The Electoral College was and is, an odd improvisation, he wrote:

The Electoral College was a messy alternative to selection of the president by the Senate. Hardly a product of divine inspiration, it represented a compromise between nationalists and states righters, Northerners and Southerners, advocates of a strong and weak executive. Most of the framers presumed that the Electoral College would only winnow down the last of presidential candidates, not make the final choice, which would be decided by the House of Representatives.

But as we’ve seen, it hasn’t worked out that way except twice in the 1800s. Instead, it’s helped mirror what the electorate really wants.

Yet oddly enough, it seems to work, not because it mirrors public opinion but provides a mechanism for electing the chief executive when the public proves incapable of conferring a majority on any single candidate.

As Ellis argues,

[T]he major impact of the Electoral College has been to produce decisive electoral conclusions even when the popular vote is evenly split and, most especially, when third-party candidacies prevent any one person from garnering a popular majority.

And yet, Americans themselves have proposed time and again to do away with the Electoral College as anachronistic and elitist.

When we return, we’ll discuss three things. How the electoral college math will play out; whether Americans really want to get rid of it; and whether it’s a model for presidential elections anywhere else in the world.


My view


Ellis, MCCullough, and practically every modern-day writer on the founding period and generation of any nation, end up having to probe the minds of the historical figures they write about, to ask this question.

If your purpose is revolution, if your aim is to end the old and establish the new, how do you destroy one thing and yet avoid planting the seeds for a permanent state of disquiet, a perpetual and never ending vicious cycle of revolution?

The Americans figured out a way unique in the history of Constitution-making, for the political stability it achieved because of the room it provided for a gradual evolution. They have amended their Constitution more than twenty times and fought a Civil War; but overall they have evolved where other nations have had to keep going back to the constitutional drawing board.

So they have, in computer terms, managed to upgrade their operating system over the centuries where other nations, including ours, keep rebooting and experimenting with new operating systems. It’s a tribute to the innate conservatism of Americas founding generation that they provided a way for incremental changes to make government continually relevant, and yet capable of adapting to the times.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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