"… 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.
The mode of selecting the president was one of the most difficult and contentious issues in the Constitutional Convention, as the EDSITEment-reviewed site Exploring Constitutional Law site explains,
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
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.
Disputed Elections: 1824
A fascinating early example of Electoral College controversies is examined in the EDSITEment curriculum unit "The Election is in the House." The presidential election of 1824 represented a watershed in American politics. The collapse of the Federalist Party and the illness of the "official candidate" of the Democratic-Republicans led to a slate of candidates who were all Democratic-Republicans. This led to the end of the Congressional Caucus system for nominating candidates, and eventually, the development of a new two-party system in the United States. In the election, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of both the popular and electoral vote. But John Quincy Adams became president. Four crucial elements of our election system were highlighted in the election of 1824: the nomination of candidates, the popular election of electors, the Electoral College, and the election of the president in the House when no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College. In this unit, students read an account of the election from the Journal of the House of Representatives, analyze archival campaign materials, and use an interactive online activity to develop a better understanding of the election of 1824 and its significance.
Disputed Elections: 1876
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.
For an overview of the controversy see the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center's "Disputed Election" section. You can read more about the Hayes–Tilden crisis and how the dispute was finally resolved by visiting the Rutherford B. Hayes section of the American President.
Related Lesson Plans
Finally a series of new lessons on the Electoral College from the Gilder Lehrman Institute (note free registration is required) is worth noting. There are three new lessons one for each of these grade bands 4–6, 7–9, 10–12. With the aid of these lessons, students demonstrate their understanding of the purposes served by Electoral College by answering a series of questions and writing a short essay arguing either for keeping the existing Electoral College or the adoption of a popular vote system.
- The First American Party System: Events, Issues, and Positions
- The Presidential Election of 1824: the Election is in the House
- The 1828 Campaign of Andrew Jackson and the Growth of Party Politics
- The Campaign of 1840: William Henry Harrison and Tyler, Too
- Voting in the Young Republic: George Caleb Bingham's "The County Election"
- Abraham Lincoln, the 1860 Election, and the Future of the American Union and Slavery
- Abraham Lincoln and Wartime Politics
- Electing America's President
- The Election of Barack Obama 44th President of the United States
- American President
- Chronicling America
- Digital Classroom (National Archives and Records Administration)
- Exploring Constitutional Law
- Gilder Lehrman