Electoral College Reform: Contemporary Issues for Congress Page: 4 of 35
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Electoral College Reform: Contemporary Issues for Congress
The United States is unusual among contemporary presidential republics in that it provides for the
indirect election of its President and Vice President.' Election of these two officers by a group of
electors, known collectively as the electoral college, was established in Article II, Section 1 of the
U.S. Constitution. The states were given blanket authority to appoint these electors "in such
Manner as the Legislature[s] thereof' may direct. The original constitutional provisions, under
which electors cast two votes for different candidates for President, but none for Vice President,
proved unworkable2 after only two contested elections,3 leading to a constitutional crisis during
the deadlocked election of 1800.4 Following this event, Congress proposed the Twelfth
Amendment, which provides for separate ballots for these two officials, and which was ratified by
the states in time for the 1804 election. The presidential election provisions of Article II, Section
1 and the Twelfth Amendment have remained unchanged since that time.
As with other provisions of the Constitution, Article II, Section 1 and the Twelfth Amendment
provided a basic framework for presidential elections, but left considerable leeway as to its
implementation. In the years following ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, state laws and
political party procedures added a range of now-familiar additional elements to the system. These
include such practices as
" popular election of electors by the voters;
" joint tickets for presidential and vice presidential candidates-the voter casts a
single ballot for both candidates;
" the predominance of the general ticket, or winner-take-all, method, which awards
all of a state's electoral votes to the ticket that wins the most popular votes
" a broad range of nomination procedures for elector candidates; and,
" an enduring tradition that electors are expected, but not constitutionally required,
to vote for the candidates to whom they are pledged.
1 Direct election of the President is currently universal in presidential republics that provide for a strong chief
executive, combining the roles of head of state and head of government, e.g., Mexico and Brazil. Presidents are
generally indirectly elected in parliamentary republics, where the president typically has a ceremonial and non-political
role as chief or head of state, while the prime minister, as head of government, exercises most of the executive
authority associated with the presidency in the United States. Examples of parliamentary republics include Germany,
Italy, and India. France combines aspects of both, providing for a powerful popularly elected president and a prime
minister responsible to parliament.
2 The unworkable formula required each elector to cast two votes for President, for different persons, at least one of
whom could not be a resident of the same state as the elector. The candidate winning the most electoral votes, provided
this constituted a majority of electors, was elected President, and the runner up was elected Vice President. This led in
1796 to the awkward result of "Federalist" John Adams being elected President as his political rival, "Jeffersonian
Republican" Thomas Jefferson, was elected Vice President.
3 Recall that George Washington was unopposed in the elections of 1788 and 1792.
4 In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and his vice presidential candidate, Aaron Burr, reached a tie vote because the Jeffersonian
Republicans failed to instruct one elector to cast a vote for someone other than Burr. The electoral college tie led to a
bitterly contested contingent election in the House of Representatives.
Congressional Research Service 1
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Electoral College Reform: Contemporary Issues for Congress, report, December 12, 2014; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc805134/m1/4/: accessed September 19, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.