Constitutional Convention Terms
Checks And Balances, Balance Of PowersThe fundamental underpinning of American government, whereby the Constitution ensures a degree of balance between each of the three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial). This balance comes from giving each branch a measure of influence over the others. This way, no one branch can amass too much power, and hopefully the federal government will work together in order to get things accomplished (well, there's some wishful thinking, anyway). Here's an example: both houses of Congress must pass a proposed law before it can go on to the president, who can sign the law or veto it. Even after a veto, Congress can still pass the law with a two-thirds majority. And if the law is passed, the Supreme Court has the power—known as "judicial review"—to uphold or invalidate that law, based on whether it is deemed constitutional.
Electoral CollegeThe Electoral College is the body that elects the president. It consists of 538 presidential Electors, with each state represented by a number of Electors equal to that state's combined representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Electors meet in their states' capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December in presidential election years to cast their votes for the president and vice president.
To be elected to the presidency, a candidate must receive a majority of the Electoral College votes cast. In 2008, this meant that the winning candidate had to receive at least 270 out of a possible 538 Electoral College votes. If no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives selects the president from among the top three vote getters in the Electoral College. Each state has one vote in this selection process, regardless of size, and to be elected, a candidate must receive the vote of more than half of the states (currently at least 26 of 50).
As its official website explains, the Electoral College is a "process," not a "place." The Founders designed it as a compromise for electing the president, since there was a disagreement among Constitutional Convention delegates as to whether the president should be elected by a branch of Congress or by direct popular vote. The idea comes from the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), where selected German princes could participate in electing a new Holy Roman Emperor. Every four years, the states select their electors (the selection process varies by state, and the only constitutional criteria is that no elector can also be serving as a Representative or Senator, or otherwise hold an elite position of "trust or profit," nor can they have committed treason against the United States). The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of senators plus the number of U.S. representatives. The number of representatives, in turn, varies according to the state's population as determined by the Census count. In 2004, the Electoral College had 538 electors, which included three for Washington, D.C. Today, a candidate must receive 270 electoral votes to win. The electors meet in their respective states in December, after the general election in November. The slate of electors is determined by the percentages of the popular vote, and each elector is pledged to vote for the candidate of his or her party. Yet there is no Constitutional provision or federal law requiring them to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their states. So some states have passed laws requiring their electors to vote as they pledged; others have made it a misdemeanor to violate one's pledge, or fine electors as much as $10,000 for going back on their word (the constitutionality of these state laws is iffy at best). As of 2008, 48 out of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) have passed laws mandating that their electoral votes will be cast on a "winner-takes-all" basis. So if candidate A receives 50.1% of Texas's vote, and candidate B receives 49.9%, all of Texas's electoral votes will go to candidate A. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where two electoral votes go to the winner, and the rest of each state's electoral votes are cast according to the popular vote within each congressional district.
Executive, Executive BranchThe branch of government charged with putting into effect a country's laws and the administering of its functions. In the United States, the president leads the executive branch.
Federalist, FederalistsThis term can be confusing as it was employed to describe two overlapping but different groups. It was first adopted by those supporting ratification of the Constitution. They wanted a term that distinguished this new government from the "confederation" established under the Articles and by comparison suggested the increased strength of the new government. But they also wanted to avoid the suggestion of a too strong government—the sort that might be suggested by the term "nationalists." The term "federalist" satisfied this need. When political parties started to form during Washington's administration, the term was re-employed to identify those favoring a stronger, more assertive federal government. But it also carried other connotations—most importantly, a belief that the views of the people needed to be filtered through the experience and education of the "wise and the good."
A term for someone who favors a strong federal government. The Federalist position came about during the 1787-8 debate over whether to ratify the new U.S. Constitution. Alexander Hamilton initiated The Federalist, a.k.a. The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays printed in newspapers and as a two-volume edition, designed to persuade voters to accept the new plan for federal government. Hamilton wrote at least 51 of the essays; James Madison wrote fourteen, and John Jay wrote five; the authorship of the remaining fifteen essays remains in dispute—either Hamilton or Madison wrote them, or some fraction of them (the essays were each published under pseudonyms). After the Constitution was ratified, the Federalist party emerged from this ideology, and it remained closely tied to Alexander Hamilton and his views; namely, a conservative perspective that favored a strong national executive, centralized government, and encouragement of merchants, landowners, and national industry. But not all supporters of the Constitution became members of the Federalist party! James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others who had strongly supported the Constitution later became founding members of the Democratic party, which generally stood for state's rights, individual liberties, a limited federal government, and emphasized agrarianism (farming) as opposed to manufactures and the cities that tended to develop along with them.
This term can be confusing as it was employed to describe two overlapping but different groups. It was first adopted by those supporting ratification of the Constitution. They wanted a term that distinguished this new government from the "confederation" established under the Articles and by comparison suggested the increased strength of the new government. But they also wanted to avoid the suggestion of a too strong government—the sort that might be suggested by the term "nationalists." The term "federalist" satisfied this need.
When political parties started to form during Washington's administration the term was re-employed to identify those favoring a stronger, more assertive federal government. But it also carried other connotations— most importantly, a belief that the views of the people needed to be filtered through the experience and education of the "wise and the good."