The U.S. Presidential Election: History, Process & Evolution

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  • 0:01 The President
  • 0:27 The History of the Presidency
  • 2:03 The Electoral College
  • 4:08 Changes to the Process
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore a very important aspect of the American political system: the election of the president of the United States. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The President

The United States has a president. You probably know that. But how much do you really know about the process of electing the president? It's a somewhat confusing system, much more so than many other nations because the American people do not directly vote for the president. I used to think that we did. Surprise! We don't. But more on that later. Let's start by talking about what the president is.

The History of the Presidency

When the 13 American colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776, they did so as 13 different states, not one nation. It soon became apparent that the colonies needed a governing body to direct the war, leading to the creation of the Continental Congress. After the United States became independent, the people drafted a constitution to outline the policies and governance of the new nation and they decided to separate the power of the government into three branches. The legislative branch, or Congress, is in charge of making laws. The judicial branch, the Supreme Court, is in charge of interpreting the law. And the executive branch, the president, is responsible for enforcing the law and for daily administration of the nation.

The early Americans knew that they needed a single leader to help run the nation, so they created the office of the president. But before they could select one, they had to lay out the rules for electing a president. Article 2 of the Constitution laid out several important policies, all of which we still follow today. The elections would be held on a Tuesday in early November because it gave them time to attend church on Sunday and then travel to the nearest poll by horse and buggy. And November was after harvest time, but before winter really set in. Candidates for the presidency had to be born in the United States and must be at least 35 years old. The president, once elected, will serve for a term of four years. The Constitution does not say anything about the process of selecting a presidential candidate beyond those requirements; political parties later developed their own systems of selecting a candidate.

The Electoral College

As the early Americans were drafting the Constitution, they hit a disagreement. Some people wanted the president to be elected directly by the people. Others wanted Congress to choose the president. The compromise was the Electoral College, an institution which directly elects the president. So here's how it works.

Each state is given a number of electors, representatives who actually choose the president. These representatives are generally selected through popular vote. Each state gets a number of electors proportionate to their representation in the two houses of Congress. Every state has two representatives in the Senate and a number of representatives in the House of Representatives, proportionate to their population. This means that states with lower populations, like Wyoming, only have three electors to vote for the presidency, because they have three representatives in Congress. At the other end of the spectrum is California, which as the most populous state, has 55 representatives, and therefore 55 electoral votes.

What this means is that the United States has an indirect election system. People like you and me do not vote for a president. We technically vote for electoral representatives who cast their vote for a president.

This means that it is actually possible for a candidate to win the presidential election, despite the fact that the majority of people did not vote for them. This has happened four times in American history, most recently in 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush won the electoral vote.

Think of it this way, if every single person in Wyoming, Vermont, Montana, and Alaska votes for a candidate, those states still only cast 3 electoral votes each, a total of 12 votes. However, if only 51% of people in California vote for the other candidate, California still casts 55 votes for their candidate. This has made the Electoral College a subject of controversy, and many people have proposed removing it.

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