Why doesn't Congress elect the President?

Electoral College: The body that elects the US President

Difficult to understand, yet it is one of the most important elements of the US electoral system: the Electoral College. Because this body ultimately elects the US president.

The electoral college was enshrined in the constitution as early as 1787. It currently consists of 538 elected voters, also known as delegates. Each state has as many people as they have representatives in both houses of the US Congress. The state with the smallest population, Wyoming, has three delegates; California, the most populous state, 55.

"When you cast your vote in the US presidential election, you're actually voting on a list of candidates," says Ken Kollman, professor of political science at the University of Michigan and director of the Center for Political Studies (CPS) there. "So when you vote for the Republican or Democratic Party, you vote for a list of either Republican or Democratic voters." These in turn later elect the US president.

The compromise

In the US constitution, the electoral college was a compromise between those who wanted Congress to appoint the president and those who advocated a decentralized system that, in their opinion, protects against a concentration of power.

The body is thus a middle ground between a direct vote by the people, in which each vote of a person counts, and the appointment of a head of state by parliament.

In 48 US states, the candidate with the most votes from among the people receives all delegate seats - the so-called "unit rule" or the "the winner gets everything" principle. Maine and Nebraska are the only two states where the electorate can be split between candidates. Many states have been predominantly democratic or republican for a long time. In some states, however, it is not clear before the election whether the Democrats or the Republicans will get a majority. That is why the so-called "swing states" are fiercely contested in every election, as only with them can you win the election.

Due to the "unit rule", it is possible that a candidate wins enough votes in the committee (270) and can become president, even though he was only voted second by the nationwide people. That happened twice in this century: Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2000 and 2016, even though they lost the so-called "popular vote".

Advantage of sparsely populated areas?

Proponents of the system say it will force candidates to visit multiple parts of the country. In a direct election, they would focus on the most populous areas and large cities, the argument goes. "It's a little more complicated," says Kollman. "[Candidates] are already ignoring large parts of the rural areas. It depends on whether you live in a rural area in a swing state. Then they pay attention to you."

Each delegate signs: This is what the 2016 electoral college certificate from Colorado looked like

Critics of the electoral college principle say it effectively deprives millions of people of their right to vote and gives voters in less populous, rural states a disproportionate amount of weight. According to the US Federal Electoral Commission, one delegate's vote is approximately 190,000 in Wyoming, while in California there is one delegate's vote for almost 720,000.

"More than half of the states have more influence through the electoral college than through the actual votes," says Ken Kollman. But he adds: "The Senate is a much bigger problem when it comes to giving areas with a small population more political weight". Each state has two senators regardless of population or other factors. "The US Senate is an extremely disproportionate body. Small states are significantly over-represented compared to large states.

In 2016 Donald Trump won in the swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida by a wafer-thin margin. But because of the principle "the winner gets everything" he was able to get all of her 75 delegate votes for himself. This year, its primary audience - white voters without college degrees - is above average in most of the highly competitive states: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

What's next?

When asked what the distribution of the electorate in the US could look like in the long term, Kollmann said: "Geographically, the country is increasingly divided between the parties. I do not assume that this will change anytime soon."

On the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, electoral voters in their states cast their votes. This year it's December 14th. The votes are then sent to Congress. Both chambers meet in the first week of January to count the votes. The incumbent Vice President reads out the name of the winner in his role as President of the Senate. Mike Pence will take over on January 6th.

According to the political scientist, the most serious thing that lies ahead of the USA and the party system is the question of how the Republican Party will develop after Donald Trump, be it from January or four years from now. Trump has developed the party in an "isolationist, protectionist and nativist direction," says Kollman, whereby nativist means a policy with a strong emphasis on the rights of those born in the country and against immigration.

"I think the main question is whether the party will stay on course or move back to where it was five to six years ago," said Kollman. Everything else will result from it. "But if Republicans stay politically where they are and remain a Trump party permanently, or at least for another generation, I believe their prospects of winning national office are bleak."

Adaptation: Uta Steinwehr

  • How much power does the US president have?

    That's what the constitution says

    The president is elected for four years, for a maximum of two terms. He is head of state and head of government, so directs the government apparatus. Around four million people work in the executive branch, including the armed forces. It is the President's job to implement the laws passed by Congress. As the highest diplomat, he can receive ambassadors - and thus recognize states.

  • How much power does the US president have?

    Control through "checks and balances"

    The three powers have a say among themselves and thus limit each other's power. The president may pardon people and appoint federal judges - but only with the consent of the Senate. Among other things, the President also appoints his ministers and ambassadors, also with the advice and approval of the Senate. It is one of the means of the legislature to control the executive branch.

  • How much power does the US president have?

    The power of the "State of the Union"

    The President must inform Congress of the fate of the country. He does this once a year in his "State of the Union Address". Although he is not allowed to propose bills to Congress, he can put forward his issues in the speech. He can thus put the Congress under public pressure. But nothing more.

  • How much power does the US president have?

    He can just say "no"

    If the president returns a bill to Congress without his signature, he is vetoing it. Congress can only override this veto with a two-thirds majority in both chambers. According to the Senate, only 111 of the slightly more than 1,500 vetoes have been overruled in the history of the United States, or around seven percent.

  • How much power does the US president have?

    Gray areas in the definition of power

    The Constitution and the rulings of the Supreme Court do not clearly clarify how much power the President has. A trick enables a second type of veto, the "pocket veto". Under certain circumstances, the president can "pocket" a bill and it will not be valid. Congress cannot override this veto. This trick has been used over 1000 times.

  • How much power does the US president have?

    Instructions that apply like a law

    The president can direct government officials how to perform their duties. These regulations, so-called "Executive Orders", have the force of law. Nobody has to approve them. Even so, the president cannot do what he wants. Courts can cash in on the ordinances or Congress can legislate against them. And: the next president can simply cancel it.

  • How much power does the US president have?

    Playing the Congress ...

    The President is allowed to negotiate contracts with other governments, but the Senate must ultimately approve them with a two-thirds majority. To get around this, presidents use "executive agreements" instead of contracts, government agreements that Congress does not have to approve. They apply as long as Congress does not object or pass laws that render the agreement ineffective.

  • How much power does the US president have?

    ... and then have to plug it back in again

    The President is Commander in Chief of US Forces, but Congress declares war. It is unclear to what extent a president can lead troops into an armed conflict without consent. Congress found that the entry into the Vietnam War had crossed a red line and stepped in by law. So the president can only gain authority until Congress reacts.

  • How much power does the US president have?

    The ultimate in control

    Should a president abuse his office or commit a criminal offense, the House of Representatives can initiate impeachment proceedings. This has happened three times so far - unsuccessfully. But there is a more powerful instrument to put a stop to the president: Congress approves the budget and can turn off the money. (The gallery was first published in 2017 and has now been updated.)

    Author: Uta Steinwehr (Illustrations: Klaus AƟmann)