APRIL 21, 2016 – 3:00 PM
The Electoral College doesn’t have a sweatshirt, a logo or a mascot. It’s not a physical building, its members never get together (except with colleagues from their own state) and it ceases to exist as soon as it has performed its function. The term “Electoral College” doesn’t even appear in the Constitution. Yet its 538 members are responsible for one of the most significant tasks in the world: choosing the president of the United States.
When you cast your vote for president this November, you’re not voting for the candidate on the ballot, you’re voting for which group of electors from your state—Republican, Democrat or some third party—get to vote for president. If you don’t understand exactly how it works, you’re not alone. “For most Americans, even those who study it, the process is still a mystery,” says Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University.
How does the Electoral College work?
It works a lot like Congress: The U.S. is divided into 435 congressional districts, each of about 710,000 people. Each district elects one person to the House of Representatives. Every state elects two senators. Electoral College votes are allocated the same way. (The District of Columbia is the exception; it doesn’t have representation in Congress, but it gets three electoral votes.) There are 538 total electors, each with one vote.
In a presidential election, every party picks its own group of electors. The candidate who gets the most popular votes in a state on Election Day “wins” all the electors for that state (except in Maine and Nebraska, where electors are doled out differently, see page 14). Electors then meet in their own states on a set day in December and vote by paper ballot. Results are sent to the vice president and other officials, and the Electoral College is dissolved (until next time). On Jan. 6, Congress meets and states’ electoral votes are counted.
Why is it called a “College”?
It has roots in the word “collegium,” which means a group of people with equal power. “It goes back to the concept of the college of cardinals that elects the pope,” says Thomas Neale, elections expert at the Library of Congress.
Why do we elect presidents this way?
The Electoral College process is outlined in Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution. It was adopted at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and was the process used to elect George Washington. The system reflects the Founding Fathers’ concern with separation of powers and checks and balances. The people get to vote for president, the states retain plenty of power (each state gets to decide how to choose electors and how to divvy them up) and electing a president is a separate process from electing members of Congress.
Originally, electors each voted for two people. The person with the most votes became president and the second-place finisher became vice president. The Twelfth Amendment (ratified in 1804) changed that. It requires electors to specify a candidate for president and vice president, which is how we do it today.
Who are the electors?
The Constitution requires that electors can’t work for the federal government and can’t vote for a president and vice president who are both from their own state. And that’s it. The rest is up to each state.
During early presidential elections (before 24/7 coverage of candidates), “people were more likely to know who their electors were than to know the presidential candidates,” says Tara Ross, author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College.
Some states choose electors during party conventions; some states have the party central committee pick electors; in Pennsylvania, presidential candidates choose their own electors. Electors are “prominent party figures” in their state (governors, state legislature leaders, long-term poll workers), loyal party members who can be counted on to vote in accordance with their state’s popular vote. In a year like this, with a highly contested election even before the national conventions, states will be very careful in choosing electors, Neale says. “They’ll want to go the extra mile to make sure the electors are fully committed.”
What if electors don’t vote for the candidate they promised to vote for?
There haven’t been many “faithless” electors (those who break ranks and vote for the other party’s candidate), but it’s happened—eight times since 1900 (nine if you count the blank ballot cast by one elector in 2000). More than 99 percent of electors have voted the way they pledged to since the system began. And those few contrary votes have never influenced the outcome of a presidential election.
Electoral College: Pros & Cons
Are superdelegates a factor?
They aren’t. “The primary process and the Electoral College are two completely different things; they’re not at all connected,” says Ross. Primaries, caucuses, delegates, superdelegates and conventions are all about choosing a candidateand have nothing to do with the Electoral College. The Electoral College is about choosing a president.
What if there’s a tie?
Fasten your seat belts, because it’s going to be a bumpy night. If there’s a tie on Jan. 6 (the day electoral votes are counted), the newly elected Congress immediately holds a “contingent election” in which the House of Representatives elects the president and the Senate elects the vice president.
The twist: Every state gets the same number of votes, regardless of population. So California, with 55 electoral votes, gets one vote in the House and two votes in the Senate; Rhode Island, with four electoral votes, also gets one vote in the House and two votes in the Senate. A contingent election raises some interesting issues, says Neale. “If each state casts a single vote, what if that state’s House members split evenly? If you’re a representative, you have in your own mind, Do I vote for the candidate who won the national vote statewide? Do I vote for the candidate who won in my district? ” Congress has two weeks to elect the new president and vice president and can’t address other legislation until that decision is final.
What is the alternative?
To move to a popular vote nationwide would require a Constitutional amendment, no easy task. An amendment requires approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and a green light from three-fourths of the states. “Any proposed Constitutional amendment faces an uphill struggle,” Neale says. But there are other options.
The District Method Because states get to choose whatever method they want for divvying up electors, some would love to see more states use the “district” method like Maine and Nebraska, where two electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the popular vote statewide and the rest go to the popular vote winners in each congressional district.
The Proportional Plan With this plan, electoral votes are awarded in direct proportion to percentage of the popular vote each candidate receives.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact In this plan, states award their electors to whoever wins the popular vote nationwide, not statewide. So far 11 states (with 165 electoral votes) have signed on; to take effect, the compact needs enough states to total 270.