If you think the electoral college is not a perfect system, neither did the people who invented it.
Five times in American history and twice in the last 20 years, the person with the most votes did not win the US presidential election. It was won by the person with the most votes in the right places. This is the electoral college. But what is it and how did this unique voting system come about when the Americans elected a president?
CONNECTED: Are the Presidential Debates Important?
How does it work?
It might be difficult to understand at first, but when you cast a ballot for president in November, you won’t be voting for just one person. You will vote for the voters this will represent your state in voting for these candidates.
Each political party elects voters before the election. Whichever candidate wins that state, the voters of that party will represent the state in the electoral college.
The number of voters in each state is based on the number of members in the House of Representatives and in the Senate in accordance with Article II Section 1 of the Constitution. Every state has two senators, so the x-factor is how many representatives it has – a number based on its population. California, the most populous state, has 53 representatives. Combine that with two senators and it has 55 votes. This is one reason why the census, which is conducted every 10 years, is vital – it helps determine how many seats in the house each state gets.
There are 535 members of Congress, but there are 538 electoral votes. These additional three are for Washington, DC. Although the District of Columbia has no proxy in Congress, it receives three electoral votes. An interesting fact: D.C. is more populous than Vermont or Wyoming.
What are the voters doing?
Voters meet on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. In 2020 it will be December 14th. Then they will cast their votes for the president based on the results in their states. Ultimately, it’s a formality.
What if there is an election dispute? States have to resolve these by December 8th in relation to the presidential election. In 2020, these disputes can be numerous due to the anticipated legal challenges on both sides.
There have been rare instances where some of these voters have become rogues and choose to ignore their state’s results and vote for the other candidate. The The Supreme Court ruled in June These states have the right to punish or remove these so-called “faithless voters” if they do not follow the will of their state’s electorate.
While most states are expected to give all of their electoral votes to only one candidate, Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions.
The state winner receives two votes, while the winner from each congressional district receives one. This enables both states to vote for more than one candidate.
How many votes do you need to win?
A simple majority of the electoral votes is required to win: 270. What happens in the referendum does not matter.
There is a slim chance the electoral college will end in a tie between 269 and 269. There is less chance of a third party candidate winning a state and preventing both the Democrat and Republican from reaching 270.
If no candidate reaches 270, the presidency will be decided by the members of the House sworn in the following January. The house delegation of each state would have a combined vote (Washington, DC, does not vote here). If a majority of states go on a candidate, that candidate becomes president. The benefit goes to the party that has a majority in at least 26 states – a number that can change as all seats in the House are up for re-election every two years.
If the house gets into a tie, a state would have to switch to overdo someone. Suppose it is still tied on the day of inauguration. In this case, the elected vice president becomes the incumbent president until the house breaks the tie.
The Vice President would be from a simple majority in the Senate.
The House only made two elections. Thomas Jefferson defeated Aaron Burr in 1800 (fans of the Broadway play “Hamilton” know this well). John Quincy Adams via Andrew Jackson was the other in 1824.
A candidate won the referendum five times, but lost the election.
- 1824: Andrew Jackson lost the election to John Quincy Adams. Jackson had about 45,000 other votes.
- 1876: Samuel Tilden lost to Rutherford B. Hayes. Tilden had approximately 265,000 additional votes out of 8 million votes cast.
- 1888: Grover Cleveland lost Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland had approximately 100,000 other votes out of 11 million votes cast.
- 2000: Al Gore lost to George W. Bush. Gore had approximately 550,000 other votes out of approximately 104 million votes cast.
- 2016: Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. Clinton had 2.8 million more votes from about 135 million votes cast.
How did we get this system?
The National Archives says the electoral college is a compromise between founders who wanted Congress to elect the president and those who want people to do so. On the one hand, there were concerns that the election of Congressmen would open the door to corruption. On the other hand, there was concern that people who live at considerable distances would not be fully informed about the candidates.
They landed on the electoral college. Incidentally, you can find the term “voter” in the constitution, but not “electoral college”.
If you think this isn’t a perfect system, neither did the people who invented it.
“It wasn’t like the founders were like, ‘Hey, what a great idea! This is the preferred method for selecting the CEO, period,'” said George Edwards III, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Texas A&M University History.com. “They were tired, impatient, frustrated. They cobbled together this plan because they couldn’t agree on anything else.”
The role of slavery in the electoral college
In the early days of the United States, states fought over how representation could be fairly shared. States with smaller populations, mainly in the north, wanted an equal number. States with larger populations, mainly in the south, wanted more representation.
The catch was that 40 percent of the southern population consisted of slaves. The southern states wanted every slave to be counted as a person. Northern states argued that slaves were property and did not need representation.
That led to the 3/5 compromise. Slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person in determining the number of representatives in the house. It was then determined how many voters a state would receive.
Will the US ever switch to a referendum system?
That will likely require a constitutional change. According to the National Archives, there have been more proposals for constitutional amendments to amend the electoral college than on any other subject.
A change is not easy in today’s partisan policy. Two-thirds of the House and 2/3 of the Senate must pass the amendment, then 3/4 of the states must ratify it. Or 2/3 of state lawmakers can bypass Congress by calling a constitutional convention, and 3/4 quarters of all states must ratify it. The approval of the president is not required.
Efforts have been made in recent years to get states to commit to giving their votes to the national referendum winner. So far, 16 states with a total of 196 votes are at their disposal on board. But the organizers have said they will not commit to it until they have enough states to get 270 votes. Such a plan would likely face legal challenges if it came into effect.