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Executive, Background

popular vote, number of electors, presidential power, electoral college, branches of government

At first, the Founders were uncertain about the kind of executive power they desired for the United States. In 1787 they debated at length about how to choose a president and how much authority to give such a person. The drafters of the Constitution gave the president fewer specific powers than they extended to Congress because they were worried about placing too much power in the hands of one individual. The Founders then created an electoral college as the means of selecting the executive of their new country.

The electoral college is composed of presidential electors representing each state. The number of electors per state is equal to the sum of the state’s senators and representatives in Congress. The Founders intended these electors, chosen as each state thought best, to meet and vote according to their individual preferences. This process excluded the influence of Congress as well as that of voters, who in these early days of the United States were not believed to be competent to choose a president.

This system depended on states to determine how electors would be chosen, an arrangement that removed the choice of the president from the direct vote of the people. Even today Americans do not vote directly for a presidential candidate. Instead, if a presidential candidate receives a majority of the state’s popular vote, a slate of electors pledges to cast all that state’s electoral votes for that candidate. Two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where electoral votes can be divided among candidates depending on the proportion of votes the candidates received.

Such a process makes some Americans fear the possibility of a presidential candidate winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote. Since the system works mostly on a winner-take-all basis, the electoral vote of most states is always unanimous, but the popular vote may be very close. It is possible for a candidate to garner a majority of the popular vote but then, by losing certain key states with large numbers of electoral votes, to fail to win a majority in the electoral college. In 1888, for example, Democrat Grover Cleveland received 5,540,000 votes to Republican Benjamin Harrison’s 5,444,000 but lost the electoral college 233 to 168. More recently, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore won 50,994,082 votes to 50,461,080 for Republican George W. Bush, but Bush won the presidency by capturing 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266.

Of the three branches of government, the presidency has changed the most in the last 200 years. At first, presidents mostly served as administrators carrying out the laws passed by Congress. But in time they have come to stand at the center of the national government. In fact, presidential power had increased so much by the middle of the 20th century that in 1951 the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, which limited the presidency to two terms.

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