When Americans vote for a President and Vice President, they are actually voting for presidential electors, known collectively as the electoral college. It is these electors, chosen by the people, who elect the chief executive.
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The U.S. Constitution established America's national government and fundamental laws, and guaranteed certain basic rights to its citizens.
The Constitution assigns each state a number of electors equal to the combined total of the state's Senate and House of Representatives delegations; at present, the number of electors per state ranges from three to 54, for a total of 538. Aside from Members of Congress, and persons holding offices of "Trust or Profit" under the Constitution, anyone may serve as an elector.
In each presidential election year, a group of candidates for elector is nominated by political parties and other groupings in each state, usually at a state party convention, or by the party state committee. It is these elector-candidates, rather than the presidential and vice presidential nominees, for whom the people vote in the November election, which is held on Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In most states, voters cast a single vote for the slate of electors pledged to the party presidential and vice presidential candidates of their choice. The slate winning the most popular votes is elected; this is known as the winner-take-all, or general ticket, system.
Electors assemble in their respective states on Monday after the second Wednesday in December. They are pledged and expected, but not required, to vote for the candidates they represent. Separate ballots are cast for President and Vice President, after which the electoral college ceases to exist for another four years. The electoral vote results are counted and certified by a joint session of Congress, held on January 6 of the year succeeding the election. A majority of electoral votes (currently 270 of 538) is required to win. If no candidate receives a majority, then the President is elected by the House of Representatives, and the Vice President is elected by the Senate, a process known as contingent election.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered several methods of electing the President, including selection by Congress, by the governors of the states, by the state legislatures, by a special group of Members of Congress chosen by lot, and by direct popular election. Late in the convention, the matter was referred to the Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters, which devised the electoral college system in its original form. This plan, which met with widespread approval by the delegates, was incorporated into the final document with only minor changes. It sought to reconcile differing state and federal interests, provide a degree of popular participation in the election, give the less populous states some additional leverage in the process by providing "senatorial" electors, preserve the presidency as independent of Congress, and generally insulate the election process from political manipulation.
The Constitution gave each state a number of electors equal to the combined total of its membership in the Senate (two to each state, the "senatorial" electors) and its delegation in the House of Representatives (currently ranging from one to 52 Members). The electors are chosen by the states "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct "(U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 1).
Qualifications for the office are broad: the only persons prohibited from serving as electors are Senators, Representatives, and persons "holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States."
In order to forestall partisan intrigue and manipulation, the electors assemble in their respective states and cast their ballots as state units, rather than meet at a central location. At least one of the candidates for whom the electors vote must be an inhabitant of another state. A majority of electoral votes is necessary to elect, a requirement intended to insure broad acceptance of a winning candidate, while election by the House was provided as a default method in the event of electoral college deadlock. Finally, Congress was empowered to set nationwide dates for choice and meeting of electors.
All the foregoing structural elements of the electoral college system remain in effect currently. The original method of electing the President and Vice President, however, proved unworkable, and was replaced by the 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804. Under the original system, each elector cast two votes for President (for different candidates), and no vote for Vice President. The votes were counted; the candidate receiving the most, provided it was a majority of the number of electors, was elected President, and the runner-up became Vice President. The 12th Amendment replaced this system with separate ballots for President and Vice President, with electors casting a single vote for each office.
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