American Voice 2004: Why don’t we elect the president directly?

Date: 1 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Q.  I know we don’t elect a president directly. But I don’t know why. And what the heck is the Electoral College? Does it lessen the value of my vote?


The 2000 election demonstrated quite clearly that we don’t directly elect our presidents. Al Gore won the popular vote but George Bush won the electoral vote and the presidency.

Why don’t we directly elect presidents? Quite simply, those who wrote the Constitution didn’t trust us with that power. For those of you who don’t remember, for more than a century after the Constitution was adopted Americans didn’t have the right to directly elect our Senators either. State legislatures elected them, a practice that generated increasingly widespread protests. Which led to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 requiring the direct election of U.S. Senators.

The indirect election of the president continues despite repeated and vigorous opposition. Indeed more Constitutional amendments have been proposed to change the Electoral College than for any other subject. Over the past 200 years more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. (Much of the information here is from an excellent report by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration available here)

Here’s how Americans elect our presidents.

Political parties nominate electors either at their State party convention or by a vote of the party’s central committee in each state. On election day, often unknowingly, voters in each state choose electors. Electors names may appear on the ballot below the names of the candidates running for president but that depends on the state.

After the popular vote this November the electors meet and conduct their own election for president. On January 6, 2005, Congress will convene in a joint session and count the electoral votes. Only then will we legally have a new president.

Each state is allocated electoral votes based on the number of Representatives and Senators that state sends to Congress. Every state has at least 3 electoral votes because each has 2 Senators and at least one Representative. (By the 23rd Amendment the District of Columbia was awarded 3 electoral votes even though it has no voting representation in Congress. To underline this bizarre situation, in 2000 on behalf of its 550,000 residents the District issued license plates bearing the Revolutionary War rallying cry, “No taxation without representation”).

One reason changing the Electoral College has been so challenging is that it offers smaller states a voting advantage. Regardless of population, every state has 2 Senators. Officials in small states argue that a direct vote would lead candidates to ignore sparsely populated states like North Dakota (640,000 residents) or Vermont (570,000) and concentrate solely on the votes in more populous states like California (35 million) or Texas (21 million)

States develop their own rules for voting even when the voting is for national offices. That was a civic lesson drilled into us in 2000 when after the election the nation endured a seemingly endless analysis of the idiosyncracies of Florida’s ballots and ballot boxes.

In all but two states, the winner of the popular vote gets all electoral votes. Thus if a candidate wins 50.1% of the vote in California, he or she gets all 55 of that state’s electoral votes.

Nebraska and Maine have different systems. Maine, for example, awards one electoral vote per Congressional district and two based on the state wide popular vote. The state has 4 electoral votes and two Congressional districts. Thus it is possible for Candidate A to win a majority of the popular vote in one district and receive one electoral vote while Candidate B wins the second district and receives one electoral vote and a third candidate C wins the statewide popular vote and receives 2 electoral votes.(No, that has never actually happened.)

Most states require electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote. Historically, more than 99% of electors have voted as pledged. Which means some haven’t. None of these individualists has been penalized. To get information on the electoral process in your state contact your secretary of state or click here.



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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.