Check your References — the Electoral College

As part of Election 101, we are posting exclusive content from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History on subjects related to Election 2012.

What is the purpose of the electoral college? How did it come into existence? These are questions answered Matthew Bowman in this article that touches on the thorny math issues behind our elections.

Multiple measures have been proposed to more closely align the Electoral College with the popular vote. One of the more commonly mentioned solutions is proportional representation; that is, rather than the winner of the presidential election in each state taking all that state’s electoral votes, the state would distribute those votes in proportion to the election results. Such a reform would almost certainly enhance the chances of third parties to gain electoral votes. However, since the Constitution requires a majority of the Electoral College for victory, this solution would most likely throw many more presidential elections to the House of Representatives. For instance, under this system the elections of 1912, 1968, and 1992 would all have been decided by the House. Thus, proportional representation would undo two of the Framers’ wishes, tying the presidency not only closer to the general public but perhaps unintentionally to Congress as well. The Colorado electorate rejected a state constitutional amendment for proportional representation in 2004.

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The preceding is an excerpt from The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, edited by Michael Kazin, Rebecca Edwards, and Adam Rothman. To learn more about this book, please visit Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press. No part of this text may be distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical means without prior written permission of the publisher.