Founding Fathers distrusted popular vote to pick a president

December 15, 2016 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s time for America to get up to speed again on the Electoral College, that oddball way the nation selects its president every four years.

Here’s how and why the U.S. does it like this:



The Electoral College was devised at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was a compromise meant to strike a balance between those who wanted popular elections for president and those who wanted no public input. Alexander Hamilton wrote, “If the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”


At the time, the country had just 13 states, and the founders were worried about one state exercising outsized influence. Small states didn’t want states with big populations to dominate. Southern states with slaves who couldn’t vote worried that Northern states would have a louder voice. There were concerns that people in one state wouldn’t know much about candidates from other states. The logistics of a national election were daunting. The thinking was that if candidates had to win multiple states rather than just the popular vote, they would have to attract broader support.



The Electoral College is a process, not a place, the National Archives likes to say.

The system has been tweaked over the years, but the gist endures. The president is selected by a “college” of 538 electors from the states. Each state gets as many electoral votes as it has members of Congress, and the District of Columbia gets three. To be elected president, the winner must get at least half the total plus one — or 270 electoral votes. Most states give all their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins that state’s popular vote.

The electors never gather as one group: They will meet in their states on Monday to cast their votes. Congress will count their ballots on Jan. 6 and announce the winner.



Electors are chosen by each party, and typically are party insiders who can be trusted to vote for their candidate.

Among this year’s electors: Ex-President Bill Clinton, who as a New Yorker will be voting for his wife. Also, a sprinkling of governors and mayors, and hundreds of local and state party stalwarts from all walks of life.

Kirk Shook, 32, is an Athens, Georgia, schoolteacher voting as a Republican elector. He says being chosen for the honor was on his “political bucket list,” but he’s been bombarded with nearly 50,000 emails lobbying him to vote one way or another. John Padilla, 59, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a retired Bernalillo County firefighter who will be stepping up for Democrats.

The National Archives says electors can be state elected officials, state party leaders or people in the state who have a personal or political affiliation with their party’s presidential candidate.



It rarely happens.


According to the National Archives, more than 99 percent of electors through U.S. history have voted for the candidate who won their state.

In many states, electors aren’t legally required to support that person. And no elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged.



The 2016 election is the fifth time the electoral system has delivered a split verdict, with one candidate winning the popular vote and another the presidency.

Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by more than 2.6 million votes nationwide, but Trump’s count in the Electoral College stands at 306 to Clinton’s 232.

The last divergent election was the hotly contested 2000 race between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.

Gore won the popular vote; Bush didn’t clinch his 271-electoral vote victory until five weeks after the election, when the Supreme Court stopped a recount in Florida.



A lot has changed since the Electoral College system was established, making many of the original reasons for its existence outdated: The U.S. now manages to run national elections quite well. Voters nationwide have no shortage of information about candidates. Slavery no longer exists. But there still are concerns that small states and rural areas would be ignored in favor of those with bigger populations if the race hinged strictly on the popular vote.



In 1967, a commission of the American Bar Association recommended that the Electoral College system be scrapped, finding it to be “archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous and dangerous.” Fifty years later, critics are still complaining that the system results in huge swaths of the country being ignored while candidates focus on a dozen or so battleground states.


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