This Day in History

George Washington was the winner of the first presidential election that the United States ever saw. It was held on Jan. 7, 1789, when white male property owners where the only people permitted to vote in the election. However, these men did not vote for the president themselves. Instead, they chose "electors" to be their state representatives. Those electors ultimately chose George Washington. President Washington took his presidential oath a couple months later on April 30, 1789.

Interestingly, the United States continues to use an election system that employs "electors," known as the Electoral College.

How Does the Electoral College System Work?

Essentially, American citizens do not vote for their president directly; rather, they vote for state electors who put in a presidential vote for the entire state. In the federal government, the president and his or her vice president are the only elected politicians selected via the Electoral College system as opposed to a direct vote by the people.

These days, political party leaders will convene at state conventions to select a number of electors. These individuals tend to be fiercely loyal to their parties' objectives. Federal congressional representatives, however, are not allowed to be electors.

States are permitted the same number of electors as the number of congressional and senate representatives they have. On the day of the election, the party that wins in a particular state will send its slate of electors to cast their votes. However, in Nebraska and Maine, the electors are allocated in proportion to the spread of popular votes. Ultimately, the candidate that receives 270 electoral votes, or more, nationally, will win the presidency.

In virtually all cases, the electors are loyal to their parties; however, they are not always required to vote the way the popular vote went in their states. That said, in 26 states, the law requires electors to vote in accordance with popular sentiment. Furthermore, in 99 percent of cases, electors have historically followed the popular choice.

Is the Electoral College Fair?

Ultimately, the Electoral College can -- in rare situations -- cause a president who was not popularly approved to be elected. This has happened three times in history. The most recent was in 2000 with the election of President George W. Bush. Some criticize the fact that a non-popularly approved presidential candidate can make it into the White House. Meanwhile, others feel that without the Electoral College, populous states like Texas and California would dominate the presidential race and less populous states would not have their voices heard.