The Presidential Election Process


Early presidential elections, conducted along the lines of the original process outlined in the Constitution, proved unsatisfactory. So long as George Washington was a candidate, his election was a foregone conclusion. But it took some manipulation of the votes of electors to ensure that the second-place winner (and thus the vice president) did not receive the same number of votes. When Washington declined to run again after two terms, matters worsened. In 1796, political rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were elected president and vice president, respectively. Yet the two men failed to work well together during Adams’s administration, much of which Jefferson spent at his Virginia residence at Monticello. As noted earlier in this chapter, the shortcomings of the system became painfully evident in 1800, when Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr finished tied, thus leaving it to the House of Representatives to elect Jefferson.James Roger Sharp. 2010. The Deadlocked Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr, and the Union in the Balance. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, provided for the separate election of president and vice president as well as setting out ways to choose a winner if no one received a majority of the electoral votes. Only once since the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, during the election of 1824, has the House selected the president under these rules, and only once, in 1836, has the Senate chosen the vice president. In several elections, such as in 1876 and 1888, a candidate who received less than a majority of the popular vote has claimed the presidency, including cases when the losing candidate secured a majority of the popular vote. The most recent case was the 2000 election, in which Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote, while Republican nominee George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote and hence the presidency.

Not everyone is satisfied with how the Electoral College fundamentally shapes the election, especially in cases such as those noted above, when a candidate with a minority of the popular vote claims victory over a candidate who drew more popular support. Yet movements for electoral reform, including proposals for a straightforward nationwide direct election by popular vote, have gained little traction.

Supporters of the current system defend it as a manifestation of federalism, arguing that it also guards against the chaos inherent in a multiparty environment by encouraging the current two-party system. They point out that under a system of direct election, candidates would focus their efforts on more populous regions and ignore others.John Samples, “In Defense of the Electoral College,” 10 November 2000, (May 1, 2016). Critics, on the other hand, charge that the current system negates the one-person, one-vote basis of U.S. elections, subverts majority rule, works against political participation in states deemed safe for one party, and might lead to chaos should an elector desert a candidate, thus thwarting the popular will. Despite all this, the system remains in place. It appears that many people are more comfortable with the problems of a flawed system than with the uncertainty of change.Clifton B. Parker, “Now We Know Why It’s Time to Dump the Electoral College,” The Fiscal Times, 12 April 2016,

Electoral College Reform

Following the 2000 presidential election, when then-governor George W. Bush won by a single electoral vote and with over half a million fewer individual votes than his challenger, astonished voters called for Electoral College reform. Years later, however, nothing of any significance had been done. The absence of reform in the wake of such a problematic election is a testament to the staying power of the Electoral College.

Those who insist that the Electoral College should be reformed argue that its potential benefits pale in comparison to the way the Electoral College depresses voter turnout and fails to represent the popular will. In addition to favoring small states, since individual votes there count more than in larger states due to the mathematics involved in the distribution of electors, the Electoral College results in a significant number of “safe” states that receive no real electioneering, such that nearly 75 percent of the country is ignored in the general election.

One potential solution to the problems with the Electoral College is to scrap it all together and replace it with the popular vote. The popular vote would be the aggregated totals of the votes in the fifty states and District of Columbia, as certified by the head election official of each state. A second solution often mentioned is to make the Electoral College proportional. That is, as each state assigns it electoral votes, it would do so based on the popular vote percentage in their state, rather with the winner-take-all approach almost all the states use today.

A third alternative for Electoral College reform has been proposed by an organization called National Popular Vote. The National Popular Vote movement is an interstate compact between multiple states that sign onto the compact. Once a combination of states constituting 270 Electoral College votes supports the movement, each state entering the compact pledges all of its Electoral College votes to the national popular vote winner. This reform does not technically change the Electoral College structure, but it results in a mandated process that makes the Electoral College reflect the popular vote. Thus far, eleven states with a total of 165 electoral votes among them have signed onto the compact.

In what ways does the current Electoral College system protect the representative power of small states and less densely populated regions? Why might it be important to preserve these protections?

Follow-up activity: View the National Popular Vote website to learn more about their position. Consider reaching out to them to learn more, offer your support, or even to argue against their proposal.

Link to learning graphic

See how the Electoral College and the idea of swing states fundamentally shapes elections by experimenting with the interactive Electoral College map at 270 to Win.

The general election usually features a series of debates between the presidential contenders as well as a debate among vice presidential candidates. Because the stakes are high, quite a bit of money and resources are expended on all sides. Attempts to rein in the mounting costs of modern general-election campaigns have proven ineffective. Nor has public funding helped to solve the problem. Indeed, starting with Barack Obama’s 2008 decision to forfeit public funding so as to skirt the spending limitations imposed, candidates now regularly opt to raise more money rather than to take public funding.Jason Scott-Sheets, “Public financing is available for presidential candidates. So what’s not to like about free money?” 14 April 2016, In addition, political action committees (PACs), supposedly focused on issues rather than specific candidates, seek to influence the outcome of the race by supporting or opposing a candidate according to the PAC’s own interests. But after all the spending and debating is done, those who have not already voted by other means set out on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November to cast their votes. Several weeks later, the electoral votes are counted and the president is formally elected (Figure).

This flow chart is called “How to Become President of the United States.” It begins with the U.S. constitution’s requirements for a presidential candidate: natural born citizenship, a minimum age of 35 years, and 14 years of U.S. residency. Step 1 is titled “Primaries and Caucuses.” The chart says “There are many people who want to be President, each with their own ideas about how government should work. People with similar ideas belong to the same political party. This is where primaries and caucuses come in. Candidates from each political party campaign through the country to win the favor of their party members. In a caucus, party members select the best candidate through a series of discussions and votes. In a primary, party members vote for the best candidate that will represent them in the general election.” Step 2 is titled “National Conventions.” The chart says “Each party holds a national convention to select a final presidential nominee. At each convention, the presidential candidate chooses a running mate (Vice Presidential candidate). The presidential candidates campaign throughout the country to win the support of the general population.” Step 3 is titled “General Election.” The chart says “People in every state across the country vote for one President and Vice President. When people cast their vote, they are actually voting for a group of people known as elector.” Step 4 is titled “Electoral College.” The chart says “In the electoral college system, each state gets a certain number of electors based on its representation in Congress. Each elector casts one vote following the general election, and the candidate who gets more than half (270) wins. The newly elected President and Vice President are inaugurated in January.”
The process of becoming president has become an increasingly longer one, but the underlying steps remain largely the same. (credit: modification of work by the U. S. General Services Administration, Federal Citizen Information Center, Ifrah Syed)