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Understanding the Electoral College

Today is Super Tuesday, and the 2012 election season is in full swing. As you know, the popular vote does not determine the winner in a presidential election. Rather, the electoral college, comprised of delegates from each state cast votes per state. This has often led to questions regarding the efficacy of the Electoral College system.

Established by Article II of the US Constitution and modified by Amendment 12 , the Electoral College is the process by which the president and vice president are elected and was designed as a compromise between election by Congress and by popular vote . Each state is allocated a number of electors that is equal to size of its Congressional delegation – the number of Senators (2 per state) plush the number of members of the House of Representatives (based on a state’s population). It is these electors who actually elect the president and vice president. Before an election, electoral candidates are selected by the political parties within each state and pledge to vote for a particular candidate. The selection process varies by state with most states selecting electors according to the results of the popular vote. The elections are decided by majority of the total Electoral College votes. If the College is unable to reach a majority, the election is decided by a majority vote in the House of Representatives for presidential elections and in the Senate for vice presidential elections.

There are aspects of this system that have resulted in controversial election results over the years, leading to many calls for reform. One issue of contention is that if electors are selected by a closely contested popular vote, it can lead to a candidate winning the election despite not having won the popular vote. This has happened three times in the nation’s history, most recently when George W. Bush was elected in 2000. Another problematic issue stems from the fact that in the case of non-majority votes by the Electoral College, the president and vice president would be elected by different bodies, which could lead to a president and vice president from different parties. While this has never happened, it is still a very real possibility.

Over 700 reform proposals have been introduced to Congress, with only one, the 12th Amendment, ever being passed. Several proposals have focused on the elimination of the College all together in favor a direct popular vote system. Other proposals have focused on reforming the way that electors are selected, the most popular alternatives being based on congressional districts or an allocation system based on the proportion of the popular vote each candidate received.

The University Libraries have many resources on the Electoral College’s history and effectiveness as well as reform efforts. The following reference books are a good place to start researching the topic:

Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to U.S. Elections, Volume 1. John L. Moore, Jon P. Preimesberger and David R. Taar (Eds.). Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010.
Dewey Library/ Ref JK 1967 C662 2010 v.1

Encyclopedia of the American Presidency. Michael A. Genovese. New York: Facts on File, c2010.
Dewey Library / Reference: JK 511 E53 2010

Guide to the Presidency. Michael Nelson (Ed.). Washington, DC: CQ Press, c2008.
Dewey Library / Ref JK 516 G83 2008

Many books on the College can be found through Minerva, our catalog, including:

After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College. John C. Fortier (Ed.). Washington, DC: AEI Press, c2004.
University Library / JK 529 A68 2004

Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College. Tara Ross. Los Angeles, CA: World Ahead Pub., c2004.
University Library / JK 529 R67 2004

Taming the Electoral College. Robert W. Bennett. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law and Politics, 2006.
University Library / KF 4911 B46 2006

Why the Electoral College is Bad for America. George C. Edwards, III. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
University Library / JK 529 E38 2011

For assistance with researching the Electoral College, contact Richard Irving, Public Policy and Administration bibliographer (rirving@uamail.albany.edu or 442-3698), or stop by the Reference Desk.

Blog post created by Cary Gouldin