Everyone knows that Americans vote for the President every four years, but did you know that the Electoral College that actually elects the President? The Electoral College is made up of representatives from each state and Washington DC and the biggest states will have more representatives, which we call “electors.” These electors will give all of their votes to the Presidential candidate that wins the popular vote in each state. The popular vote is to total number of people that vote for each candidate. If this system seems strange to you, then you would be correct, the Electoral College is unique to the United States.
The history of the Electoral College dates back to colonial times, before the thirteen colonies and earliest states became the United States. Back then, each state acted as its own country, printing money and having its own army. Therefore, when these states did become one country, it made sense to have the states send representatives to a convention to choose the President, based on who the voters in each state liked. After all, the President did not have as much power then as he does today.
Although many people want to get rid of the Electoral College, some people fear that small states will get overwhelmed by big states in popular voting. With the Electoral College, every state, even the tiny ones, get at least three representatives in the Electoral College. This means that every state, no matter how small, at least has some say in picking our next President.
Now, we turn our attention to the 12th amendment. Did you know that our 2nd President, John Adams, had a Vice President from the other political party? That would never happen today, thanks to the 12th amendment. Before the 12th amendment, every candidate running for President ran for President by himself, regardless of political party. The electors would pick two of these candidates, one for President and one for Vice President. The way those electors voted was up to the states, so you can see how the system was confusing. The electors did not have to pay attention to the popular vote.
Since communication in the 18th century was very slow, other electors from other states could not coordinate with each other to pick the Vice President with the second vote they were allowed. Therefore, when the votes were tallied in the election of 1796, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson received the most electoral votes, and the man that was supposed to be Vice President, Thomas Pinckney, who was part of the same party as Adams came in third. By the laws of the United States, those that won the top two electoral vote totals would be President and Vice President.
This result and another confusing election in 1800 led to the 12th amendment in 1804. The most important part of the 12th amendment is that instead of casting two votes for President, each elector must pick a President AND a Vice President on his or her ballot. This ensures that the President will be paired with his running mate after the election. This has been the way we have operated the Electoral College since 1804.