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What does it mean that USA Elections are indirect elections?

The US is not the only country that doesn't elect its President according to the popular vote, the votes elect another body that will cast the final vote.

The US is not the only country that doesn't elect its President according to the popular vote, the votes elect another body that will cast the final vote.

The Founding Fathers of the United States of America built a constitutional republic with a federal system whereby states' rights would be protected from an overreaching central government. One way to ensure this was to create a way in which there would be a separation of powers so one branch would not be beholden to another but balance each other out.

The US has direct elections for the executive branch of its state and local governments and legislature. The US Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate are also elected directly. But US Senators weren’t always chosen by direct vote. It wasn’t until 1914 with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment that Senators were elected by direct vote and not the state legislatures.

Indirect elections are common

The US system is not unique in that the President is not elected directly by the masses but is chosen by a secondary body. Think of parliamentary systems where the citizens vote for representatives or parliamentarians that then choose who the head of state is. A US president is given four years to carry out their mandate, unless they are impeached, but in a parliamentary system the Prime Minister can be ousted if they lose a no confidence vote. Then without new elections the parliament elects a new one.

The electoral college

The group of people who finally elect the President in the US is the electoral college, an institution that has come under more strenuous criticism in recent years but has always been a bone of contention. The contention comes when one candidate wins the electoral college but not the popular vote as happened most recently in 2016. The electoral college is why we are always talking about presidential candidates reaching a threshold of electoral votes, until after the next census that threshold is 270 to win.

Competing views on the electoral college

The electoral college was a way to ensure federalism that the President wouldn’t be controlled by the legislature. It also allowed for smaller states to keep their voice from being drowned out. Furthermore, it was thought that if a president was elected by a popular vote that President might mistake it as a mandate for dictatorship.

The case against the popular vote is that voters in bigger more populous states have their vote diluted compared to smaller less populous states. California for example has 55 electoral votes or one per 700,000 residents whereas Wyoming has 3 electoral votes or one per 200,000.

There have been many attempts to change the electoral college according to Steve Coll at the New Yorker, Alexander Keyssar says that between 1800 and 2016 more than 800 to fix it or even abolish the institution. The closest perhaps in 1969 when a constitutional amendment was passed by congress, supported by Nixon but died in the Senate.

A possible fix to the electoral college

One initiative gaining momentum is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. In this workaround 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed bills pledging their electoral votes for the presidential candidate that wins the national popular vote. Together they represent 196 electoral votes 74 shy of the magical 270.

Whatever happens this Election Day this issue will not go away and four years from now we’ll be talking about the electoral college again.


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