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Source: European Parliament

The role of the Electoral College in US presidential elections

04-11-2020

The President and Vice-President of the United States of America are not elected directly by US voters, but rather by the Electoral College, a representative body composed of 538 electors chosen by voters in parallel contests in each of the 50 US states and the District of Columbia. This body emerged during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as a compromise designed to ensure the continuing pre-eminence of the states in the US federal system, as well as to temper what were seen then as potentially dangerous democratic passions. At first, state legislatures chose the electors, and it was only in the 19th century that state authorities began to appoint electors on the basis of the result of a popular vote. The operation of the Electoral College and the process by which it chooses a presidential ‘ticket’ has attracted growing attention in recent decades, on account of an increasingly polarised US political landscape and a changing electoral map. The existence of the Electoral College poses a number of basic questions about the fairness of the electoral process and popular representation in the United States. Moreover, there are many questions about how precisely the Electoral College process should be carried out, in order for it to be considered legitimate, especially as regards the behaviour of electors and their political parties during the election period. Two elections in the past two decades – those of 2000 and 2016 – have resulted in the victory of a candidate who received fewer votes nationwide than their opponent. Calls for the abolition of the institution and the introduction of a direct election of the President by all citizens have become more frequent. Polls show a consistent majority in favour of this change, although this majority has narrowed and opinion has become more polarised along partisan lines as evidence has emerged of a structural advantage in the Electoral College for the Republican Party candidate. Nevertheless, this institution has endured for over two centuries of republican government, and a number of arguments are put forward in its defence. US public opinion is also more divided on the detail of proposed alternatives.

The President and Vice-President of the United States of America are not elected directly by US voters, but rather by the Electoral College, a representative body composed of 538 electors chosen by voters in parallel contests in each of the 50 US states and the District of Columbia. This body emerged during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as a compromise designed to ensure the continuing pre-eminence of the states in the US federal system, as well as to temper what were seen then as potentially dangerous democratic passions. At first, state legislatures chose the electors, and it was only in the 19th century that state authorities began to appoint electors on the basis of the result of a popular vote. The operation of the Electoral College and the process by which it chooses a presidential ‘ticket’ has attracted growing attention in recent decades, on account of an increasingly polarised US political landscape and a changing electoral map. The existence of the Electoral College poses a number of basic questions about the fairness of the electoral process and popular representation in the United States. Moreover, there are many questions about how precisely the Electoral College process should be carried out, in order for it to be considered legitimate, especially as regards the behaviour of electors and their political parties during the election period. Two elections in the past two decades – those of 2000 and 2016 – have resulted in the victory of a candidate who received fewer votes nationwide than their opponent. Calls for the abolition of the institution and the introduction of a direct election of the President by all citizens have become more frequent. Polls show a consistent majority in favour of this change, although this majority has narrowed and opinion has become more polarised along partisan lines as evidence has emerged of a structural advantage in the Electoral College for the Republican Party candidate. Nevertheless, this institution has endured for over two centuries of republican government, and a number of arguments are put forward in its defence. US public opinion is also more divided on the detail of proposed alternatives.

External author

European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington DC

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