The Electoral College

By Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern

Читати українською

Individuals cast votes in the presidential election, but the way they are tabulated is considerably more complicated than just adding up how many people voted for each candidate. In presidential elections, a system called the Electoral College is used, a type of indirect election which allocates electoral votes from each state. Which candidate each state’s electoral votes go to is based on the popular vote in that state. There are currently 538 electoral votes, and a candidate needs 270 to become the President of the United States.

The Electoral College was established by the United States’ Founding Fathers in the Constitution as part of a system of checks and balances on the central government. The writers of the Constitution wanted to create a system that was democratic, but also preserved states’ rights in a federal system and prevented tyranny of the majority. As a result, they chose indirect democracy over direct popular vote, and the Electoral College was a compromise between those who favored direct popular vote and those who wanted the president to be elected by Congress. Each state was granted the same number of electors as it had representatives in Congress: the number of seats in the House of Representatives being based on population, and each state having two Senators. (The inclusion of electors for the two senators prevents small states like Wyoming or Delaware from only having one vote in the Electoral College.) Each state was allowed to choose its own way of selecting its electors; most chose appointment by state legislatures, with popular election increasingly becoming standard practice later in American history. The electors would then convene and cast their electoral votes. Originally, the candidate who finished first would be President, and the candidate who finished second would be Vice President. The writers of the Constitution felt that this method of indirect democracy balanced out the Legislative Branch, where members of the House of Representatives were elected by popular vote and Senators were appointed by state legislatures.

The system has changed considerably since its early beginnings. With the rise of political parties in the early 1800s, candidates began to run on “tickets” of a President and Vice President, in order to avoid scenarios like having a President and Vice President of different parties. The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution altered the Electoral College procedures to facilitate this change starting with the 1804 election. In modern times, the electors themselves are almost entirely irrelevant. Electors generally do not use their own judgment to decide how to cast their votes; rather, every state holds a popular vote for the presidential race and all the state’s electoral votes are allocated to whoever wins the popular vote. While electors can technically cast their electoral votes for someone who did not win the state’s popular vote, it is almost entirely unheard of and in 24 states it is illegal. (The last time it happened was in 1972. In Virginia, where Republican Richard Nixon won the popular vote, one Elector cast his vote for Libertarian Party candidates John Hospers for President and Theodora Nathan for Vice President.)

The modern Electoral College is considerably more democratic than the original institution, but it still has its quirks. Because almost all states are “winner takes all,” a candidate only has to win a slight majority of a state in order to receive all of its electoral votes. For example, New York has 29 electoral votes. If President Obama wins 60% of the vote in New York, he will receive all 29 electoral votes, not just 60% of them. This means that once a candidate is confident that he or she will win a majority, however small, he or she has no further incentive to campaign in a state. The voting patterns of many states are the same in every presidential election – for example, since 1992, California has always voted Democratic, and since 1980 Texas has always voted Republican. There is very little incentive for a Democratic candidate to try to win votes in Texas or for a Republican candidate to try to win votes in California, since they will not reach a majority. Because of this, candidates focus a lot of their time, energy, and advertizing expenses on campaigning in so-called “swing states”, where voting patterns are not predictable and it is unclear whether a majority of citizens will vote Democratic or Republican. Currently, several key swing states are Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, and Nevada (Ohio and Florida are particularly attractive swing states due to their large numbers of electoral votes). Because of the winner take all system, some people who vote the opposite way of their state – like a Republican in California or a Democrat in Texas – feel that their presidential vote doesn’t really count. Maine and Nebraska are the only two states which allocate their electoral votes proportionately (with 4 and 5 electors, respectively).

Another complaint about the Electoral College is that, largely due to the “winner takes all” state allocation, it is possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote and become president anyway by winning the electoral vote. This has happened three times: Rutherford B. Hayes’ election in 1876, Benjamin Harrison’s election in 1888, and most recently George W. Bush’s election in 2000. However, in the vast majority of elections the electoral vote matches the popular vote. In addition, the President is just one office that citizens vote for on Election Day; members of the House of Representatives, Senators, and state and local representatives are all elected according to popular vote. While there are currently no revisions of the Electoral College under serious consideration (which would require a constitutional amendment that small states would have little incentive to approve), the system has changed before and it is possible that it will change again in the future.


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