Did you know that when you made your way to the polls to vote for President you aren’t voting for a candidate, but that you are actually voting for your state’s Electors? Individual voters don’t actually vote on who becomes President of the United States. The appointed Electors do. United States Presidents are elected through a system known as the Electoral College, not by how many people actually vote for them (just ask Al Gore).
The Electoral College isn’t a school with a basketball team or a physics department. It’s an actual process set in place in the United States Constitution. As this historic document was being written there were two schools of thought on how the President should be elected. Some believed that a Congressional vote should take place while some believed the President should be chosen by a majority vote of the citizens. By combining two schools of thought into one as a compromise, the idea of the Electoral College was born.
The Electoral College is comprised of 538 Electors. Electors are people in every state that are appointed by the political parties to cast votes. Therefore, if you are appointed as an Elector by the Democratic Party then you better well cast your electoral vote the correct way (for the Democratic Candidate). Each state’s allotment of Electors is the same as its number of members in its Congressional delegation (one for each member the state has in the House of Representatives plus one for each of its two Senators). Out of the 538 Electoral Votes, a Presidential candidate must win 270 electoral votes to win the election.
So why does Maine get 4 electoral votes while California gets 54? Maine has 2 members of the House of Representatives and 2 Senators (numbers which are based on the population of Maine). Each member of the House of Representatives represents ‘X’ amount of people in a given state. So if ‘X’ hypothetically represents 5 million people, and a state such as Maine has a population of 10 million, then Maine can send 2 representatives to Washington, DC to represent Maine in Congress. Every state has 2 Senators regardless of population. California gets the most electoral votes on any state because more people live there than any other state. California has 52 representatives in the House and 2 Senators, totaling 54 (which is the number of Electors California has to vote in the Presidential election). These population numbers and electoral votes can change when new censuses are performed.
The Electoral College is for the most part a ‘winner-take -all’ system. For example; Texas has 32 Electors (therefore 32 electoral votes). For example, in 2012 if most people in Texas vote for Mitt Romney on their ballots, those votes are counted toward the Republican Party’s Electors (who are the ones actually voting). Even if Mitt Romney only received 50 more votes in Texas than Barack Obama collectively in the popular vote state-wide, Romney’s Electors get all 32 electoral votes for President of the United States. In all likelihood, those appointed Electors are all going to unanimously cast their electoral vote for that Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. The only exceptions to this rule are Maine and Nebraska, who uniquely have chosen to allow their state’s electoral votes to be split, or what is called proportional. Each state has the ability to make its own choice on how to distribute their electoral votes. All but two use the ‘winner-take-all’ model.
Over recent history, we find that the majority of the state’s electoral votes end up going the way of Republicans (in red) and much less going to Democrats (in blue)
A Presidential candidate can win an election by actually getting the electoral votes of just a handful of states; as long as those handfuls of states are densely populated (like California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois). This is why the nation-wide popular vote is irrelevant. What is relevant is the state-wide popular vote. This is why those that believe their vote doesn’t mean anything are as wrong as they could possibly be. That is because those with that belief are looking at only the national numbers. The individual state is where it comes into play. Remember Florida in 2000? Each vote was counted, re-counted, and re-counted again because whoever came out on top got the ‘winner-take-all’ 25 electoral votes for President. It didn’t matter that Al Gore had more overall votes nationwide. He had to get 270 electoral votes to win that election. In that same election in California, Gore received 6 million votes and Bush received 4.5 million votes. Bush’s 4.5 million votes in California meant nothing if they couldn’t top Gore’s 6 million. Therefore, California gave all of its 54 electoral votes to the Democratic Party’s Electors (who of course voted for Al Gore).
In a nutshell, if you live in a state like Alaska, your state’s bottom-line impact on the Presidential election isn’t as impactful as a state such as New York’s impact. (3 electoral votes vs. 33 electoral votes). It’s simply due to the fact that more people live in New York than do Alaska. Over the past several elections, Republicans have shown a pattern of winning a great deal of the states that have a low population (therefore a low number of electoral votes). Democrats have shown a pattern of winning a lot less states (but the ones that are the most impactful on the bottom line). That is why all of the maps on the news are mostly red for Republican with some speckles of blue here and there for Democrat. Winning a few normally ‘red’ states such as Florida, Colorado, and North Carolina in 2008 sealed the election for Barack Obama. That is why we hear about political campaigns focusing on ‘battleground’ states. These are states that are always close in the popular votes and need an extra push to sway it one way or the other to win those state’s votes in the Electoral College.
Once the general election is over, each state then knows to which Electors they are going to award their respective electoral votes. In December of that year, the Electors meet in their respective states where they actually cast their votes for President. These votes are then sent to Congress. The votes are counted on January 6th following the November election by a joint session of Congress. The current Vice President presides over these proceedings. The official winner of the Presidency is announced in this session. At this point, it’s official.
If no candidate receives a majority of Electoral votes (270), the House of Representatives elects the President from the three Presidential candidates who received the most Electoral votes. Each state has one vote. The Senate would elect the Vice President from the two Vice Presidential candidates with the most Electoral votes. Each Senator would cast one vote for Vice President. If the House of Representatives failed to elect a President by Inauguration Day, the Vice-President Elect would serve as acting President until the deadlock is resolved in the House. OR, sack races are held on consecutive Sundays on Wisconsin Avenue until a clear winner emerges. (OK, that last sentence isn’t true).
The Electoral College has undergone change throughout American history. Since it is part of the Constitution, it literally takes an ‘act of congress’ to make a change. The first change came after the election of 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied. The 12th Amendment specifies that each Elector may cast one vote for President and one for Vice President. The 23rd Amendment was added to establish electoral votes for the District of Columbia (3).
Many have argued for the past century that the Electoral College is unfair and should be abolished. All Arguments for both sides are valid. Those against the Electoral College contend that the practice is outdated, inherently undemocratic, and gives swing states (or battleground states) disproportionate influence in elections. Proponents for the Electoral College maintain that this system protects the rights of smaller states and is a distinguishing feature of Federalism in a worldwide beacon of hope that is the United States. Multiple forms of legislation have been presented over the years proposing new systems, none of which have ever made it through Congress.
When our new country was being created, the men in charge such as Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson set in place a three-branched federal government all with responsibilities to make sure no one branch ever gained absolute power. It was a system of checks and balances. The Electoral College was part of that idea. It was a compromise on two schools of thought as to not give absolute authority to one and one alone. They believed this could lead to undue influence of elections if only Congress was in charge or if only citizens were in charge. The idea was that the Presidential election was a shared responsibility between the citizens the Congress.
Do you think the Electoral College should stay in place or be replaced by a nation-wide popular vote count? Comment and let us know.
Dustin M Pardue