Electoral College: The Complicated Way to Pick a President

Electoral College Map from the 2012 presidential election. (Image by Gage via Wikimedia Commons)
Electoral College Map from the 2012 presidential election. (Image by Gage via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2000, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won the popular vote, but was not elected president. How does something like that happen, you ask? The answer is the Electoral College.

Here are some things you may not know about how the United States picks its president.

The entire American federal style of government was created through compromise. Because of this, the system, especially regarding the electoral college, is widely criticized.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a majority of the delegates favored a plan that would have allowed Congress to elect the president. A committee negotiated it so that states would receive a number of votes equal to the total of their congressional delegation. However, the constitution bars Representatives, Senators and appointed federal officials from serving as an elector. The reason behind this is to ensure that the vote isn’t made by a group of people that meets regularly.

The system means that states that have higher populations have more electoral votes. The seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned by population, while each state has two senators. The fewest electoral votes any state has is three. The District of Columbia also has three electoral votes.

The Constitution allows the states to decide how to pick their electors. In the first presidential election, only two states, Maryland and Pennsylvania, awarded their electors based on at-large popular elections. The legislatures of four states picked their electors, while the remaining states used district elections or a hybrid system. Until 1832, it was common for state legislatures to vote for electors. South Carolina continued legislative choice until 1868 and four other states have used it one time since. Most of those states were newly admitted to the Union and didn’t have time to hold elections.

Currently, every state, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, award their electors on a winner-take-all popular-vote. This means that if a candidate gets 50 percent plus one vote, the candidate takes 100 percent of the electors.

Maine and Nebraska use a congressional district method, where each district selects an elector by popular vote, and the two other electors are determined by the statewide total.

California has the most electoral votes with 55, while seven states and the District of Columbia have the minimum three.

The Electoral College never meets as one group. The electors chosen meet in their respective state capital on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December. They cast a separate ballot for president and vice president. Following the vote, the electors sign six certificates of vote. One is sent by registered mail to the President of the Senate, who is usually the incumbent Vice President of the United States. Two others are sent to the Archivist of the United States; two more go to the state’s secretary of state and the final certificate is sent to the chief judge for the U.S. District Court where the electors met.

The certificates sent to the President of the Senate, are collected by a staff member. The unopened envelopes are arranged in alphabetical order in two mahogany boxes. The first box includes Alabama through Missouri, and includes the District of Columbia. The second has Montana through Wyoming.

On January 6, following the election, a joint session of Congress assembles to count the vote. The session is held at 1 p.m. in the larger House chamber. The Vice President presides over the session. The ballots are read in alphabetical order and the legislators have the opportunity to object to any state’s vote count. If both houses agree on the objection, the votes are ignored. Arkansas and Louisiana’s votes were both rejected in the election of 1872.

In 2001, as the incumbent Vice President, Al Gore presided over the election of his opponent George W. Bush. There were objections to the closely contested election, but Gore denied all of them.

To be elected president, a candidate must win a majority of the votes of the Electoral College. The number of required votes is currently 270.

If no candidate receive a majority, the House of Representatives is required to vote for a president immediately. The only candidates eligible are those that received the three highest electoral vote totals. Each state delegation, which excludes the District of Columbia, has a single vote.. A candidate must receive 26 votes to be elected. If no one receives a majority, the House continues voting until someone does. The Senate does the same to pick a vice president, although each senator gets an individual vote. In 1824, the House of Representatives voted for John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson. Jackson had received more electoral votes than Adams, but not a majority.

If the House can’t decide on a president by inauguration day, the vice president-elect becomes acting president until the House reaches a decision. If neither house comes to a decision by that time, the Speaker of the House becomes acting president until one of the offices is decided. However, this has never occurred.

The elections of 1876, 1888 and 2000 led to a president being elected without a plurality of the nationwide popular vote. All three of those elections saw Republicans take the White House over Democrats.

Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden in 1876, Benjamin Harrison beat Grover Cleveland in 1888, and Bush beat Gore in 2000.

Besides those results, there are other criticisms of the current process.

The first is that every vote doesn’t necessarily count. If you are a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, or vice versa, it can seem like your vote doesn’t matter.

The system allows the possibility of a candidate being elected by only 11 states. If a candidate were to sweep California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey, he or she would reach to magic number of 270 electoral votes without receiving a single vote in the other 39 states and D.C. In 2008, Barack Obama won nine of those 11 states, needing just 48 electoral votes from the rest of the country. The winner-take-all voting also discourages third-party participation.

That being said, supporters of the Electoral College have arguments in their favor as well. The system forces candidates to look for votes outside of major population areas. It allows smaller states to maintain attention and influence in a presidential race. It also allows for the isolation of election problems. — as each state conducts its own election, any potential fraud is more easily limited to that one state.

Our question, which state preceded California as having the largest number of electoral votes?

Today is International Biodiesel Day, National Day in Ecuador, and Constitution Day in Anguilla.

It’s National S’mores Day, National Lazy Day, and National Duran Duran Appreciation Day.

It’s the birthday of former U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who was born in 1874; singer and sausage magnate Jimmy Dean, who was born in 1928; and singer Ronnie Spector, who is 73 today.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1987, the top song in the U.S. was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2.

The No. 1 movie was “The Living Daylights,” while the novel “Patriot Games” by Tom Clancy topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

What was the title of the first Led Zeppelin album that didn’t feature the band’s name?



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6 responses to “Electoral College: The Complicated Way to Pick a President”

  1. In 48 states, if a candidate gets the Most votes (not necessarily 50 percent plus one vote), the candidate takes 100 percent of the electors.

    If you are a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, or vice versa, your vote doesn’t matter. Minority party voters in each state have their votes counted only for the presidential candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate.

    In 2012, 56,256,178 (44%) of the 128,954,498 voters had their vote diverted by the winner-take-all rule to a candidate they opposed (namely, their state’s first-place candidate).

    And now votes, beyond the one needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning in a state, are wasted and don’t matter to presidential candidates.
    Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004.
    Oklahoma (7 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 455,000 “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004 — larger than the margin generated by the 9th and 10th largest states, namely New Jersey and North Carolina (each with 15 electoral votes).
    8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

  2. The system forces candidates to look for votes outside of major population areas, Only in battleground states. And only a handful of states are battleground states.

    In the 2012 general election campaign

    38 states (including 24 of the 27 smallest states) had no campaign events, and minuscule or no spending for TV ads.

    More than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states..

    Two-thirds (176 of 253) of the general-election campaign events, and a similar fraction of campaign expenditures, were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa).

    Issues of importance to non-battleground states are of so little interest to presidential candidates that they don’t even bother to poll them individually.

    Over 87% of both Romney and Obama campaign offices were in just the then 12 swing states. The few campaign offices in the 38 remaining states were for fund-raising, volunteer phone calls, and arranging travel to battleground states.

  3. Now political clout comes from being among the handful of battleground states. 80% of states and voters are ignored by presidential campaign polling, organizing, ad spending, and visits. Their states’ votes were conceded months before by the minority parties in the states, taken for granted by the dominant party in the states, and ignored by all parties in presidential campaigns.

    State winner-take-all laws negate any simplistic mathematical equations about the relative power of states based on their number of residents per electoral vote. Small state math means absolutely nothing to presidential campaign polling, organizing, ad spending, and visits, or to presidents once in office.

    In the 25 smallest states in 2008, the Democratic and Republican popular vote was almost tied (9.9 million versus 9.8 million), as was the electoral vote (57 versus 58).

    In 2012, 24 of the nation’s 27 smallest states received no attention at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions. They were ignored despite their supposed numerical advantage in the Electoral College. In fact, the 8.6 million eligible voters in Ohio received more campaign ads and campaign visits from the major party campaigns than the 42 million eligible voters in those 27 smallest states combined.

    The 12 smallest states are totally ignored in presidential elections. These states are not ignored because they are small, but because they are not closely divided “battleground” states.

    Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections.

    Similarly, the 25 smallest states have been almost equally noncompetitive. They voted Republican or Democratic 12-13 in 2008 and 2012.

    Voters in states, of all sizes, that are reliably red or blue don’t matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

    Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group

    Among the 13 lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in 9 state legislative chambers, and been enacted by 4 jurisdictions.

  4. With National Popular Vote, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome.

    The biggest cities are almost exactly balanced out by rural areas in terms of population and partisan composition.

    16% of the U.S. population lives outside the nation’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Rural America has voted 60% Republican. None of the 10 most rural states matter now.

    The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States and the population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population of the United States. 16% of the U.S. population lives in the top 100 cities. They voted 63% Democratic in 2004.

    Suburbs divide almost exactly equally between Republicans and Democrats.

    A nationwide presidential campaign of polling, organizing, ad spending, and visits, with every voter equal, would be run the way presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, under the state-by-state winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida. In the 4 states that accounted for over two-thirds of all general-election activity in the 2012 presidential election, rural areas, suburbs, exurbs, and cities all received attention—roughly in proportion to their population.

    The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states, including polling, organizing, and ad spending) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When and where every voter is equal, a campaign must be run everywhere.

    With National Popular Vote, when every voter is equal, everywhere, it makes sense for presidential candidates to try and elevate their votes where they are and aren’t so well liked. But, under the state-by-state winner-take-all laws, it makes no sense for a Democrat to try and do that in Vermont or Wyoming, or for a Republican to try it in Wyoming or Vermont.

  5. With the current system, a small number of people in a closely divided “battleground” state can potentially affect enough popular votes to swing all of that state’s electoral votes.

    537 votes, all in one state determined the 2000 election, when there was a lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide.

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes maximizes the incentive and opportunity for fraud, mischief, coercion, intimidation, confusion, and voter suppression. A very few people can change the national outcome by adding, changing, or suppressing a small number of votes in one closely divided battleground state. With the current system all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who receives a bare plurality of the votes in each state. The sheer magnitude of the national popular vote number, compared to individual state vote totals, is much more robust against manipulation.

    National Popular Vote would limit the benefits to be gained by fraud or voter suppression. One suppressed vote would be one less vote. One fraudulent vote would only win one vote in the return. In the current electoral system, one fraudulent vote could mean 55 electoral votes, or just enough electoral votes to win the presidency without having the most popular votes in the country.

    The closest popular-vote election count over the last 130+ years of American history (in 1960), had a nationwide margin of more than 100,000 popular votes. The closest electoral-vote election in American history (in 2000) was determined by 537 votes, all in one state, when there was a lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide.

    For a national popular vote election to be as easy to switch as 2000, it would have to be two hundred times closer than the 1960 election–and, in popular-vote terms, forty times closer than 2000 itself.

    Which system offers vote suppressors or fraudulent voters a better shot at success for a smaller effort?

  6. By changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes, the National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    National Popular Vote

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