The U.S. president is indirectly elected by the citizenry through a “college of electors” devised in 1787 by the framers of the Constitution. The electors’ role is to meet once in each of their respective States or the District of Columbia to pick the next president. New electors are chosen for each election, and at the conclusion of their duties, they disband.
How did we inherit such a system? It is the result of a hard-fought compromise reached by the framers of the Constitution during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The framers debated many options for choosing the nation’s highest office. Some wanted popular elections, while others wanted Congress to make the choice without public input. The compromise they made falls somewhere between these two options. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton summed up how he and many of the framers may have felt about the system, noting “that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”1
The Electoral College has evolved since its establishment in 1787. Constitutional amendments have improved the Electoral College, and over time States have altered the ways they have implemented it. But the fundamentals of the system remain mostly intact. While the Electoral College is not a flawless system, it has passed many difficult tests during the 56 Presidential elections in which it has been used.
This United States Election Assistance Commission white paper explains the origins of the Electoral College, and the ways in which it has changed since its introduction more than 200 years ago. It also considers past elections in which the Electoral College was tested by unique circumstances or exceptionally tight races. Finally, the paper points out vulnerabilities in the system, and explains how in spite of its apparent imperfections, the Electoral College has continued to endure.