The Electoral College is the mechanism by which Presidents in the United States are actually elected. While quite controversial in its nature, it was chosen by none other than the United States’ Founding Fathers and/or framers of the U.S. Constitution as a ‘compromise’ for selecting the American President. At that time when the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, although they realized that the American people should be given the freedom in choosing their leaders, they also saw two ways by which this can be achieved:
1.) The people would be allowed to directly elect the President and Vice President. This is what is commonly called a direct popular election; and
2.) The people of each state would first elect their members in the US Congress through a method similar to direct popular election, then these members of Congress would then express the choice of their constituents by electing the President and Vice President themselves. This is what we call an ‘election by Congress’.
The Founding Fathers, however, saw and were fearful of loopholes in the ‘direct popular election’ option. At that time, organized national political parties didn’t exist, and there were no guidelines yet which governed the choice of candidates and which limited their numbers. Additionally, travel and communications was slow and cumbersome back then. A candidate, for example, could be very popular in a certain region, but would be virtually unknown to the rest of the U.S. And if there too many such regionally-famous candidates, it would be too divisive. Another fear that the Founding Fathers had was if someone who came from a big state was too powerful enough, he could manipulate public opinion and come to power. Thus, smaller, less-powerful states would have virtually no ‘say’ in the elections.
On the other hand, the ‘election by Congress’ option would necessitate that the members of Congress would a.) accurately gauge the desires of their constituents and b.) vote accordingly. But there was always the fear that the elections might instead reflect the opinions and political agendas of these members of Congress than the actual will of their constituents.
Hence, as a compromise, we have what is now known as the ‘Electoral College system’. In this system, voters were allowed to vote for ‘electors’ (each state is allowed a number of electors equal to that state’s number of representatives in the House and Senate), who would then cast their votes for the Presidential and his/her Vice Presidential, and this system was succinctly described in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Votes cast by the people of the U.S., known as the ‘popular vote’, will still have a bearing, because a candidate who wins the most popular votes in a state gets all of that state’s electoral votes.
Currently, there are 538 ‘electors’ in the entire United States, and for a candidate to win the Presidential race, he/she has to win 270 or more of these electoral votes. The Electoral College system is thus perceived to accurately reflect the collective will of the people of the United States, while, at the same time, giving small, less-powerful states a ‘voice’ in the electoral process.
To date, there were four Presidents in the United States who lost the popular vote but were still elected President through the Electoral College system: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush, the Republican son of George Bush, Sr., who beat Democrat Al Gore in the year 2000 elections.