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An electoral college is a set of electors who are empowered as a deliberative body to elect someone to a particular office. Often these electors represent different organization or entity with each organization or entity represented by a particular number of electors or with votes weighted in a particular way. Many times, though, the electors are simply important persons whose wisdom, it is hoped, would provide a better choice than a larger body.
Electoral colleges are an ancient institution. Ancient Germanic law stated that the king led only with the support of his nobles. Thus Pelayo needed to be elected by his Visigothic nobles before becoming king of Asturias, and so did Pippin the Short with the Frankish nobles in order to become the first Carolingian king. While most other Germanic nations went to a strictly hereditary system by the first millennium, the Holy Roman Empire could not, and the King of the Romans, who would become Holy Roman Emperor or at least Emperor-elect, was selected by the college of prince-electors from the late Middle Ages until 1806.
Christianity also used electoral colleges in ancient times, but not until late antiquity. Initially, the entire membership of a particular church (both the clergy and laity) elected the bishop/chief presbyter. However, due to various reasons, such as reducing the influence of the state in church matters or removing the laity's voice in the matter, the electing power moved to the clergy alone and then, in the case of the Western Church, to only a college of the canons of the cathedral church. In the Pope's case, the system of people and clergy was eventually replaced by a college of the important clergy of Rome, which eventually evolved into the College of Cardinals. Since 1059, it has had exclusive authority over papal elections.
Modern electoral colleges
Some states with complex regional electorates elect a head of state by means of an electoral college rather than a direct popular election. The United States is one example, where the President is elected by an Electoral College, made up of electors representing the states. Each state has a number of electors equivalent to its total Congressional representation (House of Representatives members from the state plus its two senators). The District of Columbia also has three electors under the terms of the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961. See U.S. Electoral College for details. One side effect is that it is possible for a candidate to win more popular votes but have fewer electors elected to the Electoral College, meaning that the person with fewer popular votes gets elected to the presidency. This is rare but has occurred on four occasions, in the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. The Electoral College has been the subject of intense debate in the U.S., especially after the 2000 election, and there have been frequent proposals to abolish it as undemocratic and antiquated. However, this would require a constitutional amendment, and many political analysts believe that the smaller states, which wield disproportionate influence through the Electoral College, would never agree to its abolition. Some states within the United States have chosen to divide their electoral votes in other manners. Nebraska and Maine each award one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district and the final two votes to the overall state-wide winner, though neither has ever "split" its electors in this manner. In 2004, the people of Colorado defeated a constitutional amendment which would have allocated their electoral votes proportionally to the state's popular vote in the 2004 Presidential election and in the future.
Similar systems are used or have been used in other presidential elections around the world. For example, the President of Finland was elected by an electoral college between 1919 and 1987. The short-lived Confederate States of America provided for election of its president in virtually the same manner as set forth in the U.S. constitution. In Germany and India, the members of the lower house of Parliament together with an equal number of members from the state parliaments elect the President of the Republic, whilst in Italy the presidential electoral college is composed of the members of the lower house of Parliament and three members elected by the regional assemblies of the regions.
Another type of electoral college is used by the British Labour Party to choose its leader. The college consists of three equally weighted sections: the votes of Labour MPs and MEPs; the votes of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies; and the votes of individual members of Constituency Labour Parties.
Nations with Electoral College systems outside the United States include Brazil, Estonia, Finland, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Madagascar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Ecclesiastical electoral colleges abound in modern times, especially among Protestant and Eastern rite churches. In the Eastern rite churches, all the bishops of an autocephalous church elect successor bishops, thus serving as an electoral college for all the episcopal sees. This is also the system used within them is universal.
- Voting, Elections, Democracy, Republicanism, and the Electoral College Discusses voting, elections, democracy, republicanism, and the Electoral College. Includes a procedural guide to the electoral college, parts of the Constitution and constitutional amendments regarding voting and elections, and includes the original paper by Alexander Hamilton, "Federalist No. 68 - The Mode of Electing the President", which illustrates much of the founding fathers' original thinking regarding the Electoral College.