Electoral college

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An electoral college is a set of electors who are selected to elect a candidate to a particular office. Often these represent different organizations or entities, 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 people whose wisdom, ideally, would provide a better choice than a larger body. The system can ignore the wishes of a general membership.

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Origins of electoral colleges

Germanic law stated that the German 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 Pepin the Short by Frankish nobles in order to become the first Carolingian king. While most other Germanic nations had developed a strictly hereditary system by the end of 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 (the last election actually took place in 1792).

Christianity also used electoral colleges in ancient times, until late antiquity (AD 300–600). Initially, the entire membership of a particular diocese within the Church, both the clergy and laity, elected the bishop or presiding presbyter. However, for various reasons, such as, perhaps, a desire to reduce the influence of the state or the laity in ecclesiastical matters, electoral power became restricted to the clergy and, in the case of the Church in the West, exclusively to 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 became known as the College of Cardinals. Since 1059, it has had exclusive authority over papal selection.

Modern electoral colleges

Nations with complex regional electorates may elect a head of state by means of an electoral college rather than a direct popular election. The United States is the only current example of an indirectly elected executive president, with an electoral college comprising electors representing the 50 states and one federal district. Each state has a number of electors equal to its total Congressional representation (in both houses), with the non-state District of Columbia receiving three electors and other non-state territories having no electors. The electors generally cast their votes for the winner of the popular vote in their respective states. However, there are several states not required by law to do so.

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