Understanding the Electoral College

07 November 2016
Understanding the Electoral College

Unless you live under a rock in a remote village with no TV, internet or smartphones, you know that tomorrow is election day. If you keep up with the news, then you know that their focus is now and will be through tomorrow night, the magic 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidential election.

But what does that mean?  What are electoral votes? What happened to “one person, one vote”? Where did this electoral college system come from? Well, below I try to answer some of those questions.

History of the Electoral College
In 1787 the Constitutional Convention considered several methods of electing the President. Among the options considered were selection by Congress or by governors of the states. But, all the options considered had inherent issues. For example, the presidency had to be independent of Congress, and so selection by Congress was not a suitable option. Another issue was that of political manipulation, which could rear its ugly head into selection of the President if elected by popular vote. So long story short, none of the options considered were viable. Late in the Convention however, a select Committee devised the electoral college system, which still remains in place as adopted back then, with certain tweaks here and there, including increasing or reducing the number of electors of a particular state based on changing populations. This plan was met with widespread approval, and the delegates felt that it properly reconciled differing state and federal interests, provided a degree of popular participation in the election, gave the less populous states some additional leverage in the process, preserved the presidency as independent of Congress, and generally insulated the election process from political manipulation.

What is the Electoral College?
The electoral college is basically a group of people selected by each state, which then vote to elect the President. The Constitution gave each state the freedom to determine how the electors of that state should be selected, in stating that the electors of each state be determined “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct “(U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 1). In the majority of states (34 of them), the electors are determined by the respective political parties, however the other states have varying methods of choosing their electors.

“Wait…back up. So, these people or “electors” elect the President and not me?” You may be wondering.

Yes, that is correct. When you proudly vote for your desired candidate for President, you are not actually voting for the President or Vice President of the United States, rather your vote is for an elector. So, essentially, the people elect the electors and the electors are expected to vote for the presidential and vice presidential candidates of the party that nominated them. Notwithstanding this expectation, individual electors have sometimes not honored their commitment, voting for a different candidate or candidates than the ones to whom they were pledged; they are known as “faithless” electors. In fact, the balance of opinion by constitutional scholars is that, once electors have been chosen, they remain constitutionally free agents, able to vote for any candidate who meets the requirements for President and Vice President. Faithless electors have, however, been few in number (in the 20 century, one each in 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1988, and 2000), and have never influenced the outcome of a presidential election. (see http://www.history.com/topics/electoral-college).

The Magic Number – 270
In order to insure wide acceptance of a winning candidate, the Constitution mandated that a majority of electoral votes was necessary to elect a President. The Constitution gave each state a number of electors equal to the combined total of its membership in the Senate (two to each state, the “senatorial” electors) and its delegation in the House of Representatives (currently ranging from 1 to 52 Members).  Currently, the number of electors per state ranges from 3 to 54 (in California), for a total of 538. Thus, in order to win a presidential election, a candidate must secure at least 270 electoral votes.

So, what happens if there is a deadlock among the electors? Well, the Constitution covered that too. If the electors reach a deadlock, then the House will determine the next President of the United States.

The House has only made this decision one time in the history of the United States, and that was in 1824 when they selected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson, even though Jackson had won the popular election.

Last interesting tid bit
November was chosen as the month to hold Presidential elections because the harvest was in, and farmers were able to take the time needed to vote. Tuesday was selected because it gave a full day’s travel between Sunday, which was widely observed as a strict day of rest, and election day. Travel was also easier throughout the north during November, before winter had set in.