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Who Really Elects the President

If you've been listening to or reading the political pundits' predictions of the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, then you likely know that the answer is the Electoral College.

"Preparing ballot," [1924] "Vote. League of Women Voters," ca. 1920-1925

So why have the candidates spent millions of dollars urging you to vote for them? Because in most cases, the 540 members of the Electoral College, called electors, are obligated to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state or territory. In other words, the winner of the popular vote in a particular state gets all the state's electoral votes, even if he only won the state by a few votes. It is the electors' vote that technically decides the election, and a candidate must gain 270 electoral votes to win the White House.

In most elections, the winner of the popular vote also wins the majority of the electoral votes. But four times in our history, this has not occurred: in 1824 (John Quincy Adams), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison) and 2000 (George W. Bush).

In this year's too-close-to-call election, it is possible that both George Bush and John Kerry could receive 269 electoral votes. What would happen then? The House of Representatives would decide who wins.

You can learn more about the way America elects a president at the Learning Page Web site in the Election Process section.

The section notes that the founding fathers thought that the use of electors would give our country a representative president, while avoiding a corruptible national election. They expressed this in the records of the Federal Convention of 1787:

... [T]he members of the General Convention ... did indulge the hope [that] by apportioning, limiting, and confining the Electors within their respective States, and by the guarded manner of giving and transmitting the ballots of the Electors to the Seat of Government, that intrigue, combination, and corruption, would be effectually shut out, and a free and pure election of the President of the United States made perpetual.

Today, the nominees of the political parties would be thrilled to win the election. Some presidents in the past, notably George Washington, have been reluctant to take on this heavy mantle. "I cannot describe, the painful emotions which I felt in being called upon to determine whether I would accept or refuse the Presidency of the United States," Washington revealed in a 1789 speech.

More fascinating facts about U.S. elections are in the Learning Page, the Library's Web site for teachers and students (of any age).

A. "Preparing ballot," [1924]. President Coolidge takes an oath prior to casting a ballot in the 1924 presidential election. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-111401 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: LOT 12283, vol. 2 [P&P]

B. "Vote. League of Women Voters," ca. 1920-1925. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-72736 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: LOT 5540 [item] [P&P]