U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
 www.archives.gov October 23, 2014 

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College and the National Archives and Records Administration

The 1888 Presidential election was very close. Democratic party candidate President Grover Cleveland and running mate Allen G. Thurman of Ohio won the popular election by 95,713 votes. President Cleveland, however, was not re-elected because he lost the electoral college vote by 65 votes. Instead Benjamin Harrison, former senator from Indiana and the Grandson of President William Henry Harrison, was elected as the 23rd President of the United States.

Today a President must win 270 electoral votes, a majority, to become President. If no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution provides for Presidential election by the House of Representatives with each State delegation receiving one vote. Twice in our history, the House of Representatives has chosen the President -- Thomas Jefferson's election in 1801 and John Quincy Adams' election in 1825.

The first constitutional crisis occurred when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes. Even though they were both Republicans and Jefferson was chosen as the Presidential candidate and Burr as the Vice Presidential candidate, it took the House of Representatives 36 successive ballots to finally elect Thomas Jefferson as President. Twenty-four years later, again no candidate received a 131 vote majority of electoral votes needed to become President. In this case, the House of Representatives voted for John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson and William H. Crawford on the first ballot.

These instances in our political history remind us of the important role that the Electoral College plays in electing a President. The majority of our readers know that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the repository for essential evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of Federal officials and the national experience. A little known function of NARA, however, is the administration of the Electoral College by the Office of the Federal Register. As part of the documentation of the rights of American citizens, the Federal Register plays a key role in ensuring that the complicated and sometimes confusing steps in the electoral process are followed exactly.

The Electoral College was devised by the founding fathers as a compromise between the election of a President by popular vote and by the Congress. The College currently consists of 538 electors -- based on the total number of Representatives and Senators, plus three District of Columbia electors. The electors are a popularly elected body chosen by the states and the District of Columbia on the day of the general election (November 2, 2004). The slate of electors for the Presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes is recorded on a Certificate of Ascertainment.

The next step is for the electors in each State to meet to cast their votes. In 2004 the vote will take place on December 13. Certificates of Vote are prepared listing all persons voted for as President and as Vice President and the number of electors voting for each candidate.

NARA plays an important role in educating the states regarding their responsibilities vis a vis the Electoral College. It also ensures the facial sufficiency of the Certificates of Ascertainment and the Certificates of Vote and controls the integrity of the Certificates by limiting the number of people handling the documents. It is responsible for transmitting two of the original Certificates of Ascertainment to the House and Senate and making one original available for public inspection at the Federal Register. Finally, NARA ensures that all 538 electoral votes are accounted for on the Certificates of Vote and are delivered to the Congress to be unsealed and counted on the date of the official tally (January 6, 2005).

After one year the Certificates of Ascertainment and the Certificates of Vote are placed in the permanent custody of NARA where they serve as an enduring testimonial to the strength and resilience of our political system.

Source: National Archives and Records Administration Calendar of Events -- May 1996.

Page URL:  http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/history.html
U.S. National Archives & Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001, • 1-86-NARA-NARA • 1-866-272-6272