In the United States, the voters problematically do not directly elect the president. When voters cast their votes this November, the ballot will have the name of the presidential candidates for whom Americans will vote, but officially their votes are cast for electors in each state, who then cast votes to elect the president. All of this is part of an obscure portion of the American presidential election system, the Electoral College.
This overtly undemocratic feature of the American democracy is antiquated, anachronistic, and primarily ceremonial, and should change. A system of direct election is the necessary solution, meaning that the presidential candidate who receives a plurality of the popular vote would win. This will lead to every vote counting, not just the votes in so-called “swing states,” and will increase the engagement of the American people in the election.
At its inception, the electoral college represented a Constitutional compromise between the Framers, who wanted to have citizens directly elect the president, and those who wanted the president to be chosen by Congress. The compromise allowed individual citizens to cast their votes for a group of predetermined electors, who in turn would have the final say in choosing the president.
The presidential election is the only time in which the United States employs this complex system of indirect democracy. The election process is already long and complex, but the three-month process from election day in early November, to votes by the electors in early December, to the vote of the Electoral College in early January, to the inauguration in late January proves even more confounding.
Based on the formula created by Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution, there are 538 electors in the electoral college. Each state has a different number of electoral votes depending on the number of members in their congressional delegations (number of senators and number of congress people). For example, California has 53 congressional representatives and two senators meaning it gets 55 electoral college votes.
Nevada has only one member of congress and two senators, meaning it gets three votes. This sounds fair but actually creates a situation where small states are overrepresented. For example, Wyoming has three electoral votes and a population of approximately 525,000. Texas has 25 million people and 32 electoral votes. If you divide the two states’ populations by their electoral votes, the results yields surprising results. Texas has one elector for every 715,000 people, while Wyoming has one elector for every 175,000 people. One citizen’s vote “counts” more if you live in Wyoming, which is undemocratic and wrong.
This arrangement was made so that the system would fit the constraints provided by the original Constitution by several small states, but the negative effects of the compromise live on today. While it will never happen, this anomaly could be fixed by amending the Constitution to apportion electoral votes based solely on population. As in 1787, the incentive will be for the small states to block any amendment that dilutes their power.
With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which award their electoral votes based on the winners of each congressional district, most states have a winner-takes-all system, meaning that the candidate who gets highest number of popular votes in the state gets all of the electoral votes. In order to win the presidency, a candidate needs to get a majority of the electoral college votes, at least 270.
If there is an exact tie in the number of electoral votes awarded to each candidate, 269 votes each, the House of Representatives makes the final decision on who is elected. This situation occurred in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, had the same number of electoral college votes. The House chose Jefferson as President.
The “winner-take-all” system impacts the presidential election campaign in a negative way. Candidates focus their energy on so-called “swing states,” states where the outcome of the election is uncertain and winning the state would deliver a significant number of electoral votes. As a result, people in other states are less involved in the election and voter turnout is lower. It would be better if electoral votes were awarded proportionately based on the vote in each state as candidates would have to compete in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Better yet, if our country went to a direct election, it would mean that the president was the representative of the people, not the key states that elected him or her.
The “electors” are residents of a state nominated by each political party. An elector cannot be someone who has been elected or appointed to a federal office, but outside of this restriction an elector can be almost anyone. Strangely, no Constitutional provision or federal law mandates that electors must vote for the politician they have been nominated to represent. This occasionally results in the phenomena of “faithless” electors, electors who are affiliated with one candidate, are expected to vote for that candidate based on the popular vote, but end up voting for another candidate or not voting at all.
Since the inception of the Electoral College, there have been 157 faithless electors. The last time this happened was in 2004, when a Minnesota elector voted for Vice Presidential candidate, John Edwards, instead of his Presidential running mate, John Kerry. There are also cases of “unpledged” electors, electors who do not affiliate themselves with a specific presidential candidate before being chosen for the Electoral College. While rare, the existence of “faithless” and “unpledged” electors poses a danger to our democracy — imagine the uproar if a significant number of electors ignored the will of the voters in their state and affected the outcome of the election.
After the popular vote on election day determines which presidential candidate gets the Electoral College votes in each state, the electors from each state meet in their respective state capitals on the second weekend in December to cast their votes. Although the news media announces the apparent winner on election day evening or the morning following, the election is not official until the Electoral College votes.
The votes cast by the electors in each state are sent to the President of the Senate to be counted before a joint session of Congress on January 6. The candidate who receives the majority of the 538 possible electoral votes is declared president. The transfer of power to the new president occurs at noon on January 20 at an inauguration ceremony at the Capitol.
Today the workings of the Electoral College are a mere formality. Media outlets are able to “announce” the winner with near perfect accuracy based on the popular vote because the electors are pledged to vote for their party’s candidate. The winner of the race is almost always known before the Electoral College meets.
Most people assume that the popular vote, the vote of the American people, elects the president. Yet, there have been four occasions in U.S. history (three in the 19th century) where a candidate has garnered a greater number of popular votes than his opponent but has been defeated by the vote of the Electoral College.
The most recent and poignant example of this phenomena occurred in the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush received 47.9 percent of the popular vote (50,456,002 total votes) while Gore received a slightly higher 48.5 percent (50,999,897 total votes). Still, Bush emerged victorious, receiving 271 votes from the Electoral College while Gore received 266. After a grueling 36-day recount battle concerning the validity of votes in Florida (the state that determined the outcome), Al Gore finally conceded defeat on December 13, 2000.
Looking at the current presidential race, if the eventual nominees are Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz, it is conceivable that Clinton would win a larger percentage of the popular vote from the more populous core group of democratically leaning states, but lose to Cruz, who could win more states and more electoral votes.
This problem could be fixed if the states would agree to give their electoral votes to whichever candidate has the most votes nationally, regardless of the outcome of the voting in their state. This would allow the national vote to be the deciding factor. Several states have already agreed to this, but not enough to change the outcome of a presidential contest.
Alternatively, if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the two main candidates, there is a chance that former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg will run. If this occurs, it is possible that no candidate would reach the 50 percent threshold in the Electoral College, in which case the House of Representatives would make the decision as to who would become president. Given the distrust of Washington and the highly partisan nature of Congress, such an outcome would undermine just about everyone’s faith in our American democracy.
Created to combat the tendency of the many to make rash, uneducated decisions, the electoral college’s complexity also serves to make voting and political engagement an unattainable or intimidating prospect for some. Although some of the disorder being reported from the 2016 campaign trail (think Donald Trump supporters showing up dressed like members of the Klu Klux Klan) suggests why the Founders felt the ongoing need for a buffer between the will of the common voter and the selection of the president, the fact remains that the electoral college system is a vestige of an outmoded political model.
U.S. citizens should understand how the political system works, given its potential to greatly impact political life and trajectory of the country. As the process of choosing the Democratic and Republican candidates reaches a fever pitch, it is not too early to look ahead to scenarios for how the general election will play out.
At least some of them could result in an outcome where the will of the people, as represented by the popular vote, isn’t respected. In a year in which public dissatisfaction with politicians and the political process is at record highs, it would be a disaster if the people’s view was ignored. It won’t happen this year, but the U.S. Constitution should be amended to remove the electoral college and create direct election via a popular vote to select the U.S. president.