The United States is the oldest continuously functioning democracy in the world. Its constitution was ratified in 1788 and has been amended only 27 times since then. The first 10 of these amendments, called the Bill of Rights, were approved in 1790. Amending the constitution is (by design) an exceptionally difficult procedure, as described near the end of this page.
The procedure for electing a president is spelled out in Article II. Each state is entitled to a number of electors equal to that state's representation in Congress (Senate + House). Since each state has two senators and at least one Representative, every state has at least three electors. Currently California has the largest number of electors: 55. The electors meet in their respective state capitals in December of each election year to cast their votes for president and vice president. These electors, who together form the electoral college, are the ones who actually elect the president. If no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives elects the president, with each state having one vote. This happened in 1800 and again in 1824.
Each state is free to choose its electors as it wishes. In the 18th Century, America was largely rural and most people were farmers who knew little about politics. In this climate, a direct election of the president would probably have been difficult in any case. In the early days of the nation, electors were chosen due to their wisdom and knowledge of politics, not due to their preference for any particular candidate. Even in the modern world, direct election of a distant president is not always so easy. For example, the European Union does not have a direct election for its president. Instead, a complex system exists in which countries, not citizens, are the key players, exactly like the role of the states in the U.S.
Each state determines how its electors are chosen by state law and the process varies from state to state. In states with primary elections, each presidential candidate usually designates a slate of electors who then appear on the November ballot. The voters are then actually voting for a slate of electors pledged to one candidate or another. In caucus states, the electors may be chosen at the state caucus. Electors are actual human beings, with houses, children, jobs, and very occasionally, their own opinions. In most states, the slate of electors that gets the most votes wins and gets to travel to the state capital in December to vote for president and vice president. In the bitterly contested election in Florida in 2000, George Bush carried the state by 537 votes out of over six million cast, and thus got all 25 of Florida's electoral votes. Since it is the electoral vote, not the popular vote, that actually elects the president, keeping track of it is crucial for people who want to know how the campaign is going. This website is designed to make it easy to track the electoral vote.
Many criticisms have been leveled at this 18th Century system. First, why have electoral votes at all? Why not just elect the president by popular vote? The reason this system has never changed is simple: politics. States with many buffalo and few people, like Wyoming, benefit from it and are not keen on changing it. Since every state gets at least three electors, low-population states have proportionally far more political power than they would have in a direct election system. The number of voters per elector is about four times smaller in the three-elector states than in the most-populous states. The fact that nearly all the low-population states are heavily Republican adds to the difficulties of changing the system. Direct election of the president would eliminate the current bias in favor of the Republicans.
Getting rid of the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment. Amending the constitution is (by design) an exceptionally difficult process requiring not only 2/3 majorities of both houses of Congress, but also by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states. Even in 1788, the Founding Fathers knew that politicians often made outrageous promises. They wanted to make sure the constitution, which most Americans regard as sacred, could only be changed when there was a massive consensus in favor of the change. To give a modern example, president George W. Bush has called for a constitutional amendment stating that a marriage shall be a union between exactly one man and one woman. The Founding Fathers well understood that political slogans like this should not find their way into the constitution too easily, so they made the process very difficult. Changing the electoral college system will not be easy.
A second criticism of the electoral college is its winner-take-all character. If Florida's 25 electoral votes had been split 13 for George Bush and 12 for Al Gore, then Al Gore would now be president. There is nothing in the constitution mandating winner-take-all. The manner for choosing electors is regulated by state law. In fact, two states, Maine and Nebraska, do not use winner-take-all. In those states, the winner of each congressional district gets one elector and the winner of the state as a whole gets an additional two. Any state that wanted to adopt this system need only pass a state law to do so. No constitutional amendment is required.
In his book Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-All Politics Steven Hill argues for Instant Runoff Voting. In this system, each voter would designate a first choice, a second choice, etc. After all the votes have been cast, everyone's first choice is counted. If some candidate has a majority, he or she is elected. If not, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is disqualified and his or her votes redistributed to the voter's second choice candidate. This process is repeated until some candidate has a majority. In 2000 under this system, voters could have designated Ralph Nader as their first choice and Al Gore as their second choice. When the first choice votes were counted and it was discovered, for example, that Nader came in last (not really, since there were even more minor candidates), his votes would then have been given to the second choice candidate. In effect, a voter could have said: "I want Ralph Nader but if I can't have him, I'll settle for Al Gore." With instant runoff voting, this is possible. This system is used in some municipal elections. Again, any state that chose to adopt it need only pass a state law to do so. No constitutional amendment is required.
The third objection to the electoral college is the so-called faithless elector problem. As mentioned above, electors are actual human beings, with all the properties that go along with that. In particular, when they meet in December in their respective state capitals, they sometimes do not vote for the candidate they are officially pledged to. In 1948, for example, Truman elector Preston Parks of Tennessee, voted for Strom Thurmond who was running on the pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket. In 1960, Nixon elector Henry D. Irwin of Oklahoma voted for Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, then an ardent segregationist. In 2000, one of Gore's D.C.'s electors, Barbara Lett-Simmons, cast a blank ballot in protest of the District's lack of congressional representation. None of these faithless electors changed the outcome of their respective elections, but in a close election in the future, it might be possible for a candidate to bribe enough electors to swing the election. At the very least, state law could make voting the wrong way a felony with life in prison as the punishment.
If Congress wanted to keep the electoral college but make it fairer, there is a simple (but unlikely) solution: increase the size of the House of Representatives. There is nothing in the constitution mandating a particular size except that each member must represent at least 30,000 people (which puts an upper limit on the House of about 10,000 members). In fact, the House has been expanded repeatedly in the past as the nation grew. The most recent expansion was in 1911, when the U.S. population was about 93 million, so a representative had 212,000 constituents. With the current population of 293 million, a representative has 674,000 constituents. To bring this number back to its 1911 value, the House should be expanded to 1370 members. Since a state's electoral vote is equal to its congressional representation, with 1370 House members, the effect of the 100 senators would be much smaller and the electoral votes would be almost proportional to population. To increase the size of the House, Congress would merely have to pass a law; the states would not be involved at all.
Even without any changes, the system does offer some flexibility. In New York State, for example, there is a Liberal Party and a Conservative Party, and both are on the ballot at every election. The Liberal Party usually nominates the same person as the Democrats and the Conservative Party usually nominates the same person as the Republicans. As long as each party gets enough votes, it retains its status as a recognized party and gets on the ballot automatically at the next election. It has been suggested that if Ralph Nader were to choose the Kerry electors as his electors in each state he gets on the ballot, then people could express their support for him, and provide impetus to his movement, but a vote for Nader would (literally) be a vote for Kerry. This would no doubt encourage many people to vote for him knowing that such a vote would not help George Bush.
Here is a blank map of the U.S. with the electoral votes marked for teachers to use in school.