Results put new focus on system
The fact that Hillary Clinton most likely won the U.S. popular vote but won’t be president has some people wondering, “Wait, why do we do it this way?”
Thank – or blame – the Founding Fathers for creating the possibility of a so-called “divergent election” when they set up the Electoral College.
A look at how and why the U.S. selects its presidents this way:
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, according to a white paper from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. 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.
HOW IT WORKS
The electoral 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 the state’s popular vote.
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has changed since the Electoral College system was established, making many of the original reasons for its existence outdated: The U.S. now manages to run national elections quite well.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.
But there are still 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.
Fifty years later, critics are still complaining.