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How Presidential Elections Have Changed Over the Years

Electing a president is more complicated that many people realize.

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Every four years, the United States goes through another presidential election. There are a lot of things that have to happen in very specific ways, and sometimes the process doesn’t go very smoothly. That’s when it gets really confusing.

The Electoral College

The people of the United States don’t elect the president. The people of each state vote to choose which candidate they want their state to support. Then the states have special delegates, called electors, vote for the president.

Each candidate has a group of electors in each state equal to the number of U.S. senators and representatives for the state. After all the states have certified their popular votes, the electors from each state vote for the president and vice president.

The Original Method and Its Problems

Originally, each elector voted by writing down two names without specifying which was for president and which was for vice president. Congress would then count the votes. The candidate who won the most votes, as long as it was a majority, became president. The one who came in second became vice president. If no candidate won a majority of the votes or if there was a tie, the House of Representatives would vote immediately to pick the president.

Thomas Jefferson (left) and John Adams (right)

Twice this caused problems. In 1796, John Adams won a majority of the electoral votes and Thomas Jefferson came in second. They were from different political parties and didn’t work together very well. Then in 1800, Thomas Jefferson tied against Aaron Burr. A simple majority of the state delegations in the House of Representatives was needed, but it took six days to get it.

Fixing the Process

Eventually, Congress passed the 12th Amendment to the Constitution and the states ratified it. Ever since the 1804 election, the electors have submitted two ballots, one each for president and vice president. This basically fixed the issue of having a president and vice president who can’t work together. It didn’t solve the issue of what happens when electoral votes are challenged, however. This became a problem after the Civil War, and Congress had to pass the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which explains how electoral challenges should be resolved.

The Process Today

Now, the people in each state vote for the president/vice president team they want their electors to support. Congress counts the electoral votes and either certifies them all or discards some if any are successfully challenged. If one candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, that person is declared president. If there is no majority, the House of Representatives must immediately break into state delegations and choose the president from the three candidates who received the most electoral votes, with each state getting one vote. The Senate votes, with each senator getting one vote, to choose the vice president. If no president is elected by January 20, the vice president becomes the president and the Senate elects a new vice president.

James is our wordsmith extraordinaire, a legislation hound and lover of all things self-reliant and free. An author of politics and fiction (often one and the same) at and, he homesteads in the Arkansas wilderness.

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