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Electoral Votes    Primaries Then    Primaries Now

Who Elects the President?

If you're an American citizen, 18 years of age or older, you probably think you have the right to vote for presidential candidates in the national election. You're wrong! In our country, when citizens punch their ballots for President, they actually vote for a slate of electors. Electors then cast the votes that decide who becomes President of the United States.

Does this mean that an individual citizen’s vote doesn’t count? Not at all — when citizens exercise their right to vote, they do their part in electing the candidate of their choice. They determine the electoral vote for their state.

Usually, electoral votes align with the popular vote in an election. But four times in our nation's history, the person who took the White House did not receive the most popular votes (Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison John Quincy Adams, and George W. Bush). How did this happen? Aren't we a democracy? What were the founding fathers thinking?

In fact, the founding fathers thought that the use of electors would give our country a representative president, while avoiding a corruptible national election. They expressed this in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787:

...[T]he members of the General Convention...did indulge the hope [that] by apportioning, limiting, and confining the Electors within their respective States, and by the guarded manner of giving and transmitting the ballots of the Electors to the Seat of Government, that intrigue, combination, and corruption, would be effectually shut out, and a free and pure election of the President of the United States made perpetual.

In the The Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, framers of the Constitution settled on what seems like a convoluted system to voters today:

Each state shall appoint, in such manner as its legislature may direct, a number of electors equal to the whole number of senators and members of the House of Representatives to which the state may be entitled in the legislature.

But no person shall be appointed an elector who is a member of the legislature of the United States, or who holds any office of profit or trust under the United States.

The electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves.

Until 1804, electors cast votes for candidates without saying whether they were voting for president or vice president. This system crashed and burned in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes. It took the House 36 votes before the tie was broken and Jefferson took office as President.

The 12th Amendment to the Constitution made sure that electors designate their votes for president and vice president. But, the 12th Amendment leaves in place a tie breaking system by which the House of Representatives breaks a tie on presidential electoral votes and the Senate breaks a tie on vice presidential electoral votes. This leaves open an intriguing possibility. Someday a President and Vice President from different political parties could be forced to serve together! What problems do you predict might occur from such an arrangement? Does it offer any benefits? In 1796, Federalist John Adams was elected the nation's second president, and Thomas Jefferson, of the Republican party, was elected vice president. How did these men work together? How did their political differences affect their leadership?

In recent elections, the electoral college has voted presidents into office by extremely slim margins, as in the case of John Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon. Electors have failed to vote for the candidates to whom they were pledged, as in the case of the elector who jumped from Michael Dukakis' ticket to that of Lloyd Bentsen. And William Jefferson Clinton did not win more than 50% of the popular vote in the three-way presidential race of 1992. Clinton did, however, win the electoral vote and become president.

While these electoral methods may seem strange to us now, it may seem even stranger that the founding fathers didn't even provide a process by which to nominate presidential candidates. They seemed to expect that candidates would be as obvious and unanimous choices in the future as George Washington had been in their time. Did they know that political partisanship would develop? Did they know how complicated and important the process of nomination would become to the process of election?