Electoral College

As the primary season for the 2012 election has ended, all sides are now focused on the general election and the march to Election Day in November.  On that day, millions of Americans will go to their local polling place and cast a vote for President/Vice-President.  Some will choose the Democratic candidate, some will choose the Republican candidate, and some will choose a third-party candidate such as the Green Party or Libertarian Party.  When we walk out of those voting booths, we feel as if we’ve had our voices heard and that the will of the people will be done.  But wait just a moment.  The popular vote won’t determine who are next president is, and it never has in the past.  Why?  The Electoral College has the final say.

So what is the Electoral College?  “The Electoral College consists of the electors appointed by each state who formally elect the President and Vice President of the United States.” (Wikipedia)  When we cast our vote for President/Vice-President, we aren’t casting a vote for the candidates, but rather their electors to the Electoral College.  Each state determines how it will choose who those electors are for their state.  In most states, those electors must vote for the candidate that won the state’s popular vote.  There have been instances of rogue votes, but most states have passes laws that forbid that practice.  In all but two states, it’s winner take all.  Even if Candidate A gets just one more vote that Candidate B, Candidate A gets all of the electoral votes.  The two states that don’t practice this are Maine and Nebraska.  The winner automatically receives two electoral votes, and then the remainder are given out based on the winner of each congressional district.  In 2008, Senator John McCain handily won the state of Nebraska, but he only received 4 out of the 5 electoral votes because then-Senator Barack Obama won the congressional district encompassing Omaha, thereby, receiving one of the votes.  The number of electoral votes a state gets is based on the number of seats in the House of Representatives each state has + the two seats in the Senate.  Nebraska, for instance, has three congressional districts.  Add that to the two Senate seats to get 5 electoral votes.  DC is granted 3 electoral votes despite no official representation in Congress via the 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution.

So why did our Founding Fathers enshrine this Electoral College system into our Constitution?  In essence, they didn’t feel that the common man was not informed enough to elect the leader of the country.  Originally, as proposed under the Virginia Plan at the Constitutional Convention, the idea was for Congress to decide who the President was.  This eventually led to the compromise of each state deciding how it would determine its own electors.  James Madison and James Wilson, along with many other delegates, still supported popular election though they admitted that it would difficult to do with southern votes and the 3/5ths compromise that had been reached regarding slavery in that region.

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the US Constitution~

So in all the presidential elections dating back to George Washington, there have only been a handful of times when the popular vote was overturned by the electoral college.  The first of these being in 1824 between Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and General Andrew Jackson.  Jackson had won both the popular vote and electoral vote, but he didn’t win enough of the popular vote since there were four candidates altogether.  A candidate must receive 50.1% of the electoral vote to win… which in today’s time is 270.  Any candidate that fails to win that number cannot be declared the winner, and the election is thrown into the House of Representatives per the US Constitution.  And the House of Representatives, in that instance, under the leadership of Henry Clay, elected John Quincy Adams.  Jackson would beat Adams outright 4-years later.  The instances of the popular vote winner not receiving a majority of the electoral vote include the years 1876 (Hayes vs. Tilden), 1888 (Harrison vs. Cleveland), and 2000 (Gore vs. Bush).

Since 2000 there has been a growing number of people across the country that have wanted to reform or even abolish the Electoral College and move toward a more direct, popular election… the same as we do for all our other elected officials.  Gallup determined that in October 2011, 62% of Americans were in favor or a popular election for President/Vice-President with 35% wanting to remain with the current system.  Of that 62%, there is a bipartisan appeal… 71% of Democrats, 53% of Republicans, and 46% of Independents.  So how would we change the system if we decided to go that route?  Since the Electoral College is enshrined in our Constitution, it would require a constitutional amendment… which means we, the people, wouldn’t have a direct say in the matter.  An amendment to the US Constitution becomes valid after it passes both houses of Congress by 2/3rds vote and then is ratified by 3/4ths of the state legislatures.  It is not an easy process.

So should we be trying to change how we elect our President/Vice-President when it would be such a daunting task?  We’ve changed it before via the 12th Amendment.  But for this particular instance, one could go either way.  There have only been four times in all of our elections when the two have not been one in the same.  In all but the four elections mentioned earlier (1824, 1872, 1888, and 2000), the winner of the popular vote won the electoral vote.  In that instance, there lies no problems.  But, as Americans, we take great pride in electing our leaders.  And though it may seem like we are voting for a certain candidate, in reality, we are not.  It seems rather shocking to us here in the 21st century.  Then there is the added question that if we were to keep the Electoral College, should we change the rules so that it’s not winner take all?  Should it be more in line with Nebraska and Maine where the winner is granted two electoral votes automatically and then the rest are apportioned by each congressional district won?  In 2000, George W. Bush won the state of Florida (thus granting him victory in the election) by 1,784 votes.  Maybe a compromise plan would even work.  If the difference in votes is less than 10%, then it would be awarded proportionally, but it would be winner take all if it was more than 10%.  What about a plan where the Electoral College remains in place as it currently is, but can be overturned if the popular vote is different?  Along those lines is a similar plan called the National Popular Vote Compact in which states would award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.  Eight states have signed on, though none have been officially enacted.  Regardless of whatever path we decide to go down in the future, we must keep in mind that for 224-years, the process has been mostly correct, and we might be making a bigger deal over something that isn’t.

George Washington is the only person to receive a unanimous vote from the Electoral College.  He received it in both elections.  Though James Monroe ran unopposed for a second-term, one electoral delegate did not cast his vote for him so that Washington would remain the sole person to receive that honor.  Ronald Reagan came close in 1984, when he received the votes of 49 of 50 states (also minus DC).

IVN – Is It Time To Reform the Electoral College?
Americans vs. The Electoral College [Infographic]


5 Responses to Electoral College

  1. lista de email says:

    i am certainly going to bookmark this page in case i need your help in the future. thanks again!

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  5. Brian Westerhold says:

    You might want to correct the line “they didn’t feel that the common man was not informed enough” since your double negative actually says ‘ they felt the common man was informed enough. Otherwise it was a very informative article.

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