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Presidential Elections, Then and Now

The way we elect the president has changed a bit since the birth of the nation.

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Every four years, the United States goes through another presidential election. For such a regular process, there is a lot of confusion about how it works. Most of the time, it probably seems straightforward, but there are a lot of things that have to happen in very specific ways, and sometimes – like with the 2020 election – the process doesn’t go so smoothly. That’s when it gets really confusing. So, how do we elect the president, specifically?

The Electoral College

The nation we have today is very different from the one our Founders built. However, one thing that remains mostly the same is that 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, and 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)

In 1796, a problem arose. John Adams won a majority of the electoral votes and Thomas Jefferson came in second. They were from different political parties and didn’t agree on much – but they were expected to work together as president and vice president. Then in 1800, a different problem came up. Thomas Jefferson ran against Aaron Burr. They tied at 73 electors, meaning the House had to break the tie. A simple majority of the states was needed, but they couldn’t get it. Eight states voted for Jefferson, six voted for Burr, and two tied. It took six days and 36 ballots, but finally, Jefferson won ten states, making him president.

Fixing the Process

After the troubles of the 1796 and 1800 elections, 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.

There were still problems, though. In 1876, the election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was the last to require Congress to sort it out. Tilden won both the popular vote and the electoral vote, but Republicans in Congress challenged the electoral count. The Constitution and the 12th Amendment explained how to get and count the electoral votes, but they didn’t say how to resolve disputes. So Congress made a deal. Rutherford B. Hayes would become president, and in return, he would officially end the Civil War Reconstruction.

The Process Today

Later, Congress passed the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which explains how electoral challenges should be resolved.

Now, the people in each state vote for the president/vice president team they want. Instead of running as two separate individuals, a presidential candidate picks a “running mate” to join his or her campaign as the potential vice president.

After the election, the electors vote and submit the results to be certified by Congress. The electoral votes of any state can be challenged if at least one senator and one representative sign a written challenge. Congress must immediately vote to resolve the challenge by either accepting the votes or discarding them. Only then can they move to the next state’s votes.

Once the counting shows one candidate to have a majority, that person is declared president elect and his or her running mate becomes the vice president. If no one wins a 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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