"…the people of each State shall choose a number of persons as electors, equal to the number of senators and representatives of such State in the national government, who shall assemble within the State, and vote for some fit person as President."
--Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 68, 1788
Every four years on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December the members of the U. S. Electoral College meet to elect "some fit person" as the President of the United States. Almost everyone in America, thanks to the presidential election mess of 2000, knows that the Constitution provides that the president will be selected by an Electoral College, not by direct popular vote. Yet the Electoral College is one of the least understood aspects of the original Constitution.
As the EDSITEment reviewed site Exploring Constitutional Law site explains
“The mode of the selection of the president was one of the most difficult and contentious issues in the 1787 Convention. Some delegates urged that the president be selected by the legislature. Other delegates, favoring direct election, argued that selection by the legislature would mean--at least if presidents could serve more than one term--that the president would be continually trying to please the legislators and would not be truly independent. Delegates opposed to direct election expressed the concern that presidents would always come from more populous states and wondered whether the public would have the knowledge of various candidates necessary to make a wise selection. The final decision of the delegates, to have electors chosen by the various state legislatures elect the president, was the result of a compromise worked out by a committee comprised of one delegate from each of the states and presented to the Convention on September 4, 1787”
The U. S. Electoral College, accessible through the EDSITEment-participating website, National Archives offers background information on how this voting body works, including the role the National Archives plays in the electoral voting procedure. Once there you will find answers to the most frequently asked questions about the Electoral College.
This year's Electoral College vote will take place on December. Usually the choice is no surprise: the candidate who won the popular vote in November is generally the winner of the electoral vote as well. But that is not always the case.
In the presidential election held in 1876, many newspapers across the country projected Democratic presidential nominee Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York as the winner over Republican nominee Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. As the returns trickled in throughout the night, however, Republicans realized that although Hayes had lost a close race in the popular vote, he could still win the electoral vote and thus the presidency if he retained his lead in three states: South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. What followed was an electoral college controversy that lasted for several months. Use EDSITEment's reviewed historic digitial newspapers site, Chronicling America, to find newspaper stories about the election.
You can read more about the Hayes-Tilden crisis and how the dispute was finally resolved by visiting the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center's "Disputed Election" section, available through the EDSITEment-participating website, Presidential Speeches, under the resources for Rutherford B. Hayes. Visit the EDSITEment-participating website, American President, for further information on Rutherford B. Hayes and his campaign and election.
A fascinating early example of Electoral College controversies is examined in the EDSITEment curriculum unit "The Presidential Election of 1824: the Election is in the House" which explains what happened when no Electoral College majority emerged in the 1800 presidential election between Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr.