How America’s Electoral College works
The Electoral College is somewhat of an ambiguous institution among the American people, whom perhaps do not appreciate the pivotal role it plays in deciding who gets a four-year stint in the oval office.
Contrary to popular belief, America is not a true democracy; the people do not directly elect the nation’s chief executives.
The United States is a representative republic, meaning the people directly elect their representatives who in turn directly elect the nation’s chief executives. In America’s case, it is the popularly-elected Congress which decides the president and vice president.
In other words, the U.S. Congress and the Electoral College are one and the same.
Each state has two representatives in the U.S. Senate, and this number is not dependent on population. That makes a total of 100 senators.
It is the number of representatives in the House that is dependent on population; that said, each state is however entitled to one representative regardless of population. There are currently 435 members in the House of Representatives.
In addition, Washington, D.C. is also granted three electoral votes, so in total there are 538 votes in America’s Electoral College.
Each member of the Electoral College has two votes each election cycle: one for the president and one for the vice president. This is mandated by the Constitution’s Twelfth Amendment. But, because of the use of tickets—in which multiple political offices are voted for in a single vote, in the case of America’s executive branch the president and vice president—electing the president for all intents and purposes elects his or her running mate as vice president.
For the president to be elected, he or she must net at least 270 electoral votes. 270 was not always the requirement, as the lower population of the U.S. in the past corresponded to a lower number of electoral votes.
There have been three times in history when the electoral vote did not coincide with the popular vote. In 1876, Rutherford Hayes won the Electoral College by a miraculous single vote, despite opponent Samuel Tilden netting over
250,000 more popular votes. Again in 1888, Benjamin Harrison scored 65 more electoral votes than Grover Cleveland, the latter of whom took 90,000 more votes in the popular.
If the electoral vote cannot determine America’s next top executive, it then becomes a matter for the House of Representatives. Each state’s representative corpus gets one vote, rather than the usual one per each member. If a candidate still does not receive a majority vote, the burden is then passed to the Senate.
The most recent example of the Electoral College failing to make its choice was 2000’s George W. Bush versus Al Gore election, when the popular vote fell in Gore’s favor—by over half a million votes—but Bush took the electoral by a very slim margin of 271-266.
This incident, the first in over a century, led Americans to question the importance of their voice in selecting the nation’s executive, and perhaps left a lasting mark on those who do not exercise their right to vote—those who say, ‘Well, your vote doesn’t matter anyway!’
The Supreme Court got involved in the case, and found the different standards of vote counting in different Florida counties to be in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the court let the Florida secretary of state’s initial declaration of Bush as the winner of the state’s electoral vote stand, and as such added 25 more votes to his electoral coffers—which put him over the required 270—and bagged his first term as president.
However, the question remains: what is the point of voting for president if the Electoral College just picks the president anyway?
It is important to understand the history of the Electoral College before addressing this question.
America was the first nation of its kind in recent memory; not since the classical-era Greeks or the earlier stages of the Roman republic was there a concerted effort by a society to grant the average Joe real, tangible political power—to give the people a voice. There was more than a millennium-and-a-half gap between the birth of the United States and the ancient Roman state’s mid-life crisis.
The infant country’s leaders had little to work with in the construction of a democratic nation. In doing so, they were concerned with how power should be divided—about how much power the state governments should have and how much the individual citizen should have.
The Electoral College represents a compromise between the two. It made sure the citizen’s voice mattered, while preventing a sort of anarchic mob rule which the government feared; it made sure the state governments themselves had a say in who gets elevated to political power, while preventing them from becoming oligarchic dictatorships which the citizens feared.
The voice of the people matters in that most all electors vote whichever way the popular vote goes. If the majority of the constituents of a certain republican congressman vote democratic for president, he or she will cast his or her vote for the democratic president. This is not to say so-called faithless electors have never reared their heads—they have 157 times in fact—but out of the several thousand people who have cast their vote as part of the Electoral College this number is comparatively small.
However, the more direct way the people’s voice matters is in voting for the representatives who in turn vote for the chief executive. Senators and congressmen are directly-elected officials, meaning for them the popular vote is all that counts.
Despite the existence of the Electoral College, which some believe robs the people of their political rights, Americans do have a voice and the power to choose who represents them to the world.