Summary by Elaine Ackerson, a 21st century friend of Mr. Madison's. First written prior to the Electoral College of December 2016. Quotes are from the documents noted. These documents can be viewed in details by visiting the National Archives website. The documents are made available by the National Archives for downloading in PDF format.
With 2016 being a Presidential Election year, many took interest in this little discussed or understood step in the process that certifies the next President of the United States. The step in the process for electing the President and Vice-President of the United States is the Electoral College. It was set forth in Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution in 1787. By 1803, it required revisions. The original language is shown below.
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately ch use by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall ch use from them by Ballot the Vice President.
The Congress may determine the Time of chusing (site note: spelling is from 1803) the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States. Source: The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription I National Archives.
Article II, Section 2 goes on to state the basic qualifications for being elected as the first President and Vice-President, as well as for those who would eventually succeed them in office.
The 12th Amendment, which was passed by Congress on December 9, 1803 and ratified on June 15, 1804, made changes to the procedural steps of the Electoral College (Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution). The 12th Amendment reads as follows:
On March 2, 1932 Congress passed the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, and it was ratified January 23, 1933. The first section of this Amendment fixes the date for Presidential and Vice-Presidential inaugurations beginning with those elected in 1936. In the second section, Congress is mandated to meet at least once a year starting at noon on January 3. Section 4 provides for succession of power in the event the President and Vice-President are unable to complete their terms in office. The remaining sections, 5 and 6, provide the terms of ratification and implementation of the 20th Amendment.
Pertinent to the results of the Electoral College, as it currently functions, is Section 3 which is quoted below.
While this language may seem to repeat language found in Article II Section 1 of the Constitution and in the 12th Amendment, Congress felt it necessary to include this language in the 20th Amendment to firmly state the terms of being inaugurated as President.
To summarize, when we go to the voting booth in a Presidential election year, we are actually voting for the men and women who will cast the final votes for who will be our next President and Vice President.
In the first Presidential elections, the candidate who received the most votes from the Electoral College was the President-elect. When the ballots were subsequently cast for the Vice President, the elected President was removed from the list of candidates, and the candidate receiving the most votes from the revised list became Vice President. As a result, the newly elected President and Vice-President could easily be from different parties. This in fact happened when John Adams, a Federalist, was elected as the Second President, with Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, chosen as his Vice President.
In contrast, today the President and Vice-President will have campaigned as a team and been elected as a team in both the popular vote and the Electoral College.
The original premise of the Electoral College was to refine the results of the popular vote (feared by many of the men who were involved in writing the Constitution). Thus the Electors were to vote their conscience. After the ratification of the 12th Amendment, there was a shift in the directions given to the Electors by their respective states, ultimately leading to the "winner take all" electoral votes we see today.
In the video that opened this page, Alexander Hamilton calls on James Madison to discuss the impending ratification of the 12th Amendment, as well as reminisce about the debate over Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution in 1787. This conversation would have occurred in the late spring of 1804, while Mr. Madison was Secretary of State. In this conversation, Mr. Madison mentions that the Amendment was one state shy of being ratified. Enter into that time with Messrs. Madison and Hamilton to learn their thoughts on this topic.
Throughout the conversation they mention their efforts in support of the Constitution, writing collectively as Publius. The articles they mention are part of what is collectively referred to today as "The Federalist Papers" (see the Bibliography list for the full title as well as where to find it if it's not in your local library.)
The Electoral College video is found on YouTube.
On a somewhat related note, after World War II (1947), Congress took up the problem of term length for the office of President. This was in response to Franklin D. Roosevelt's three consecutive terms in office. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was ratifed in 1951.