EXPLAINER: The Electoral College, an unlovable compromise

For a compromise that has lasted more than 200 years, the Electoral College doesn’t get a lot of love.

According to the National Archives, more Constitutional amendments have been proposed to alter or abolish the Electoral College than on any other subject — more than 700 proposals in the nation’s history.

It was James Madison who drew up the system, a compromise between those who wanted the states to select the president and those who wanted direct election by qualified voters. Each state was to select a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress (senators and representatives).

It was left to the states to decide how to pick their electors. At first, some states allowed voters (generally adult males who owned property) to do so, while others entrusted their legislatures. Eventually, all states embraced the popular vote, though some gave the franchise to Black men only after the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 and to women with the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Under the Constitution, the president must be elected with a majority of electors. If no one wins a majority, the House of Representatives decides. The national popular vote plays no part; five men have been elected president though their opponent won more votes, most recently Donald Trump in 2016.

There is a move afoot to bypass the Electoral College by convincing states to agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, regardless of which candidate won those states. Such a compact would only take effect if it was approved by enough states to win a majority of the Electoral College — 270 votes.

Only Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes — the rest are winner takes all. Electors are not obligated under the Constitution to follow the instructions of the voters, though some states have laws that require it.

The electors meet and vote in their states on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. And there are no graduates of the Electoral College. In this case “college” is not an institution of higher education, but a group of people engaged in a common pursuit. Regardless, the term does not appear in the Constitution.

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