The US Electoral College Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The US Electoral College

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Someone posed this riddle — what college has no walls, no tuition, and no students? The answer is the US Electoral College. Its members meet in the 50 State Capitols and not together under one roof. The members are determined by the vote in the separate states. Members of Congress and employees of the Federal government are prohibited from serving as an Elector in order to maintain the balance between the legislative and executive branches of the Federal government. On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December they cast the ballot which elects the President of the United States. Whichever candidate receives 270 votes out of 538 wins. If this decision disagrees with the popular vote (as it did in the year 2000) it is this vote, not the popular vote held in November, that is binding.

How it All Started

The founding fathers of the United States of America faced a very difficult question at the birth of that nation. How much power could they entrust to the people, and how much to representatives?

The Electoral College system was chosen over a direct vote system. They instituted a series of checks and balances and wrote into the United States Constitution an Electoral College process. At that time the word college signified any group of people working towards a common end rather than a place of learning. They also wanted to avoid disrupting the delicate balance of power between states.

The idea for an Electoral College may have come from German federalism, with various principalities of that age voting for a central figure to rule the Empire.

The 2008 Popular Vote

If the popular vote were the one certified, the TV networks would not have diagrams displaying red or blue states and the final results would look like this:

Obama65,125,043
McCain57,178,049
Nader672,774
Barr497,206
Baldwin179,035
McKinney145,725

Why Have an Electoral College?

One reason for the existence of the Electoral College is that a handful of states could steal the election if it were the direct vote which was certified. The top ten states by population shown in the 2000 census were:

  1. California
  2. Texas
  3. New York
  4. Florida
  5. Illinois
  6. Pennsylvania
  7. Ohio
  8. Michigan
  9. New Jersey
  10. Georgia

That census listed 152 million people in those states, or 54 percent of the US population. Direct vote certification would give an advantage to these ten states. This is known as 'majority rule' and not everyone is convinced that it is wrong — some would call it 'democracy'.

Another reason was to maintain the identities of the states. If everyone in 1790 had voted directly, then the state governmental bodies might have felt threatened. This way they cast the ballots in their own states and nobody will question whether these governmental bodies are superfluous in the face of an overarching national identity.

Fundamental Flaws

Ever since grade school, children in the US have been taught the 'one person-one vote' principle, and the idea that everyone has an equal voice in our government. This has never been the case in the US Presidential Elections. Once the Political Conventions decide what names to put on the ballot, then people go to the polls and vote, but what they are really deciding is who their state wants to support in the Electoral College.

A little mathematics on the year 2000 census data gives the following:

Minnesota

  • 372,045 Adults
  • 10 Electoral votes
  • This gives 37,204 people per vote.

New Mexico

  • 269,214 Adults
  • 5 Electoral votes
  • This gives 53,843 people per vote.

California

  • 25,052,100 Adults
  • 55 Electoral votes
  • This gives 455,500 people per vote

As if this weren't bad enough, 48 of the 50 states are winner-take-all, which means that a candidate with just over half of that state's popular votes gets all of the electoral votes from that state. Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions and in 2008 it appears that Nebraska will split its electoral votes four to one. This system gives different states different representation.

Third Parties

Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, third parties have been able to garner electoral votes only five times. The most recent was 1968 when George Wallace and his American Independent Party won the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. There is no hope of winning office that way. There is, however, a way that a third party candidate can influence things. Wallace tried it unsuccessfully that year. By winning just enough states that neither of the two major parties gets 270 votes1, the third party candidate can hold the balance of power. Between election day and the time the Electoral College votes, he can cut a deal with one or the other to have them agree to his policies in exchange for his votes. This ploy is just one more reason for not having an Electoral College. Most voters in the US who vote third party do so because there is some policy statement or some thing about the two major candidates which the voter adamantly rejects. The winner-take-all plan gives such people no voice in the outcome.

The 12th Amendment

The Constitution has been amended. A little over two hundred years ago, in the popular vote, the people of the United States voted for Thomas Jefferson to be President and Aaron Burr to be Vice President. As the system was then set up, the person with the most votes in the Electoral College became President and the second choice became Vice President. However, Jefferson and Burr each got 73 votes. Hardly anyone remembers the contributions Burr made to the US Government. Jefferson, on the other hand, is remembered as one of that nation's greatest presidents. Since that day, there have been separate ballots for President and Vice President, but it took an amendment to the US Constitution to make this change.

Further History

The poet and philosopher George Santayana said Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Some may consider the election of 1824 a piece of the past which should not be repeated. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but he was up against a man whose family was already entrenched. So John Quincy Adams was selected to be the fifth president. Four years later, Jackson got his turn and became president.

In 1876, Rutherford B Hayes won the Electoral vote. He did so because all the small states were for him while the more populous ones went for Samuel Tildon. It was proof that the Electoral College did what it was designed to do — empower states equally regardless of their density.

In 1888, another mistake was made when Benjamin Harrison lost by 95,713 votes in the popular election but carried the Electoral College by 65. This denied a popular president Grover Cleveland re-election. Four years later, Cleveland got his second term.

Which brings us to the 21st Century. During the 2000 election, George W Bush carried the Electoral College by a vote of 271 to 266, while losing the popular vote by about 538,000 out of 104 million votes cast. Like John Quincy Adams, his family had already had one president. In that year also Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received 2,882,728 votes. If he had received even two electoral votes, then the election would have gone to the House of Representatives to decide. Four years later Bush won both the direct popular vote and the Electoral College vote with 286 electoral votes.

Possible Reform

Newspapers, television and even websites like President Elect keep the electorate informed and updated on what is happening. But if there is a problem, then how should it be fixed? One possible solution would be to fix the allocation of delegates to the Electoral College differently. The simplest idea to implement is to have electors pledge to vote for whoever got the most votes nationwide regardless of who won in their own state - effectively eliminating the Electoral College and deciding the result on the popular vote. Other proposals out there include having the states hold a popular election, then the candidates receive electoral votes based on percentage. If then a state had ten electoral votes, and candidate A received 70% of the popular vote in that state, candidate B received 18%, and candidate C received 12%, then candidate A would receive seven electoral votes, candidate B two, and candidate C one. In a worst case scenario, a president could be elected with a minimum of 42% of the popular vote. Another more recent suggestion is to have the states split their electoral votes so that they would cast one vote for each congressional district (representing the candidate who won that district) and then have two extra delegates who would be pledged to the winner of that state's popular vote.

Another idea is to have an instant runoff, also known as 'single transferable vote', a system used in some countries of the world such as Ireland. Each voter would rank the candidates, for example:

Reform Party1st choice
Green Party2nd choice
Democrat3rd choice
Republican4th choice
Libertarian Party5th choice

Then if nobody gets fifty per cent, the candidate (or party) with the least votes is eliminated and the votes retabulated with the voters' next choice substituted. When this is reduced to two candidates (or parties) a clear winner emerges and he gets the electoral votes. For more on instant runoffs, see the article on Voting Methods.

The question remains: which is more important — one man, one vote — or not disenfranchising the lesser states? This is a question to which they may never find a suitable answer. And until they do, this is the way the United States of America will choose its President.

1As it turns out, Nixon had 301 votes anyway, so the strategy didn't work.

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