There’s Nothing Smart About the Electoral College
Did you know that when you vote for a Presidential candidate you’re not actually voting for that person? Did you know that if you live in California it takes over 350 votes to equal the vote of one person’s ballot in Wyoming? Such is the lunacy of the least intelligent college in America: the Electoral College.
This election has raised a lot of tension and upset, and also a lot of confusion. Why in a democracy would the candidate who the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes (more than the population of over a dozen states combined) lose the election?
It’s because in the United States the voters don’t actually vote for the President. Really. When you go to the polls on Election Day, though your ballot may only list names of the nominees, you’re actually voting for a group of people called electors who’ve pledged to support a political party’s nominee for President. Each state has a designated number of electors, or electoral college votes. In 48 states (all but Maine and Nebraska), no matter how many votes the candidate receives, it becomes a “winner takes all sitch”. Say a state has a designated 20 electoral college votes. If one candidate gets 80,000 votes and the other candidate gets 80,001 votes, the latter candidate ends up getting all 20 votes. With this system, it’s not hard to see how the person who won the popular vote can end up having fewer electoral college votes.
Another huge problem is the number of Electoral College votes assigned to each state. They are pretty arbitrary and not based on population. For example, the population in California is almost 39 million (about 38,000,000). In Wyoming the population is just a little over half a million (approximately 584,153). California gets 55 Electoral College votes and Wyoming is assigned 3. But what this means is:
* It takes 705,454 Californians to equal 1 Electoral College vote.
* It takes only 194,717 Wyoming voters to equal 1 Electoral College vote.
* But what that really means is that if you live in Wyoming your vote is worth almost 4 times more than a voter’s ballot in California.
The Electoral College means that not only are votes unequally weighed, they’re slanted heavily in favor in rural, less populated areas. And because of the “winner take all” outcomes a Presidential election’s outcome can come down to who received the most votes in about 3 counties in the country. This inequality of representation among states mirrors the inequality in our Congress. No matter how populous a state, each state gets 2 Senators in the Senate. New york has many millions more citizens than Mississippi, but both states have 2 Senators, and therefore one could argue New Yorkers are very under-represented in the Senate while folks in Mississippi receive more than their fair share.
That’s how it is with the Electoral College. Each state has as many electors as it has members in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives combined. The Electoral College thus includes 535 electors from the states, one for each of the 435 members of the House plus one for each of the 100 senators. Another three electors represent the District of Columbia, for a total of 538.
The victor may win several large states by just a few popular votes. But even this small margin wins all the state’s electoral votes. The opponent, on the other hand, may win large popular majorities in several smaller states with few electoral votes. Thus a person may lose the nationwide popular vote and still be elected president. This happened this year, and in 2000 when Al Gore received half a million more popular votes than George W. Bush but lost the Electoral College by 5 votes (266 to 271).
No matter whom you voted for, you can see this system doesn’t feel very democratic. It’s hardly the “one person, one vote” system most of us assumed we were dealing with. How did this all start?
In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention decided on this system of indirect election of the president. Basically, they didn’t trust the populace to always make the best choice. So the delegates decided a group of electorates in each state would elect the President, informed by how many votes each candidate received in the popular vote. This way, they figured, ordinary citizens in each state would have a say but the final decision would be made by people who were best informed about the candidates and the issues.
(Some adjustments have been made over the years. The electors voted for two candidates at first, with the one with the highest number of votes becoming President and the one with the second-highest number of votes becoming Vice-President. That’s how in 1796, political foes were chosen for the two posts: Federalist John Adams became our second President while his nemesis/frenemy, Thomas Jefferson, became Vice- President. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1804 and now candidates run only for President or Vice-President, with electors voting for President and Vice-President separately.)
Though we typically know whom the President-Elect will be the morning following Election Day, election results do not become official until weeks later. Despite its name, the Electoral College never actually convenes as a unified group. Members of the Electoral College meet in their state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December. (Convoluted much?) That’s when they cast their votes, then the sealed results are sent to Washington. On January 6th, the results are read in the presence of the entire Congress. On January 20th, the new President then takes the oath of office, and then THEN it’s all officially official.
Now, with all this nuttiness, some questions often arise:
Do Electoral College members have to vote for the candidate that ‘won’ the state?
Electors in the Electoral College are usually pledged to support a party’s nominees for President and Vice-President. But CAN electors vote their conscience and make their own best decision? Most states make their electors pledge to vote in a certain way, and 24 states have laws that punish electors who decide to get cute and switch things up — “faithless electors.” However, with a few exceptions like Michigan and Minnesota, votes cast by faithless electors still count in the final tally. (Abraham Lincoln’s winning total in the 1860 election included four electors who were pledged to Stephen Douglass.)
Taking the Founding Fathers’ intentions into account, one could argue that electors should vote for the candidate they truly believe will be the best for the country, regardless of party or an edge in the popular vote in their state. (In the election this year, one Elector from Texas quit because he said in good conscience he could not vote for Donald Trump as his position demanded.)
Do we have to keep putting up with this crazy system?
Despite complaints, it would take an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to change the Electoral College system. That is considered very unlikely to happen. It gives Republicans and certain states such an advantage they’re not likely to relinquish this electorate ‘subsidy’.
In my humble (OK, not-so-humble) opinion, we really should jettison this archaic system that penalizes states with the most people and obstructs democracy and the voters’ will. Former Vice-President Al Gore says shifting to a popular vote “would stimulate public participation in the democratic process like nothing else we could possibly do.” Of course, Gore may not be impartial, but a reliance on the actual popular vote would certainly be more fair and more democratic. And there’s nothing biased about that.