On Nov. 3, the popular vote will directly decide the winners of races up and down the ballot, except for one.
While voters elect members of Congress, occupants of governor’s mansions, state legislators, mayors and other local officers, the nation’s highest office is determined by the Electoral College — an obscure and controversial feature of America’s electoral system established by the Constitution.
The two presidential candidates jockey for the needed 270 electoral votes of the 538 total at stake to clinch the White House. With some states solidly in Republicans’ or Democrats’ corner, the focus on the electoral map typically narrows to the key battlegrounds — a collection of states that are likely to tilt the election in one candidate’s favor.
Here’s what to know about the Electoral College:
Why the Electoral College?
In 1787, the primary conflict between delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was over the process for electing the president. With dueling plans over either empowering Congress or a popular majority with the ability to elect the chief executive, the Founding Fathers ultimately settled on the Electoral College as a compromise.
Since inception, the Electoral College has been a quirk in the country’s voting process — a group of electors who reflect the distribution of power across the states, based on congressional representation.
The system was designed to both balance sectional interests between the north and south — a divide that “mapped” the slavery issue — and to shield the separation of powers by not giving Congress outsize influence over the presidency, said Richard Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University and an expert on election law.
“Southerners wouldn’t stand for direct popular election of the president because slave states would get no credit for their human chattel,” wrote Akhil Amar, a professor of law and political science at Yale University, in his book, “The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era.”
The indirect pathway to the presidency also insulated the choice for the president from the throes of “factions,” which James Madison warned against in the “Federalist Papers” as a group he viewed as “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” And in the absence of “national familiarity” with potential picks, the mechanism thwarted concerns among the founders over 18th Century voters not knowing much about the candidates, Pildes said.
The system, the framers decided, was a middle ground between electing the president by Congress and by