Here’s a little factoid that never fails to mightily confuse most voters. As Americans, we actually DO NOT directly elect our presidents and vice presidents. I repeat, the U.S. president is not chosen through a one-person, one-vote system!
Simply put: this is not direct democracy!
When we head to the polls on election day to choose a presidential candidate, we’re not actually really voting for that person. Instead, we’re throwing our support behind a group of “electors” who belong to a strange institution called the electoral college. And it’s that group that actually casts the direct votes to decide who the next president and vice president will be.
Don’t believe me? Check out Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Says it right there. Honest.
Here’s how it works:
First off, what is the Electoral College (and do they have a good football team)?
It’s more of an institution than a place. No dorms. No frat boys. No teams. No crazy parties. Basically, none of the fun stuff.
Here’s what it is: During the presidential election every four years, the various political parties in each state (for instance: California’s Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, etc.) choose a group of “electors,” generally party activists who have pledged their electoral votes to the presidential candidate of that party should he/she win the popular vote in that state. Pretty much anyone who’s registered to vote is eligible to be an elector, with the exception of members of Congress and federal government employees).
Who better to explain our confusing electoral system than … the British!
When do the electors cast their official votes for president?
Oddly, it’s actually not until after election day. On the Monday following the second Wednesday of December (stay with me here!), each state’s electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their votes — one for president and one for vice president. This event never really gets a whole lot of attention because everyone already knows that those electors are almost certainly going to vote for the candidate in their own party. The results are announced on January 6 and the president is sworn in two weeks later.
Technically, electors can change their minds, but that’s only happened about five times in U.S. history (these electors are labeled “faithless”). Interestingly, most instances have been within the last 30 years, according to Time Magazine.
How many electors does each state get?
It’s based on the number of U.S. congressional representatives that each state has, plus its two senators. So, every state (and the District of Columbia) is guaranteed at least 3 electoral votes. A sparsely populated state like North Dakota – which has two senators but only one congressional representative – gets just three electoral votes. So, in North Dakota, each political party comes up with their own list of three electors to represent the state in the Electoral College (should the candidate from that party win the popular vote).
California, in comparison, is the most populous state, and gets 55 electoral votes (53 congressional reps plus two senators).
How does a candidate win electors?
The presidential election is decided state-by-state. And for almost every state, it’s a winner-take-all scenario. Which means that the candidate who receives the most popular (aka direct) votes in each state, gets all of that state’s electors. And the other candidates in the race – even if they lose the popular vote by just a couple of actual votes = get no electors from that state at all. Nada. Squat.
So, looking at California again, If Barack Obama were to win the state, he’d get all 55 Democratic electors and Mitt Romney wouldn’t get a single one of his 55 Republican electors.
And that’s why very populous states like California, New York, Texas, and Florida are political jackpots; they just have so many delicious electors for the taking.
The two exceptions to this rule are Maine and Nebraska. They use a proportional system, in which two electors are chosen by popular vote and the remainder of the electors are decided by the popular vote within each congressional district.
Why is 270 the magic number?
There are 538 electors nationwide, and to win the the presidency, a candidate needs 270 of them. So, if you win a state like California (even if you win it by a single measly popular vote), you’ve just gotten about 20 percent of the votes you need to be sitting pretty in the White House come January.
Conversely, presidential candidates generally don’t spend too much time on the campaign trail in places like the Dakotas (no offense guys – we still love you). Although, you probably won’t find them spending that much time in California either – because it’s pretty safely in the Democratic category. It’s the big swing states (or battleground states) – places like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia – that you’ll see the candidates spending most of their time as the election nears. Because it’s these states that are still up for grabs and chock full of electors – they’re the one’s that will usually decide the election.
PBS NewsHour’s election map center and the site 270 To Win both provide good interactive maps that allow users to play around with the variables and simulate various outcome. They also show the state-by-state breakdowns in past elections.
This is all really confusing! Give a real example already.
OK. Let’s look back at the 2008 election. First off, in terms of electoral votes, Obama pretty much killed it – he ended up with more than twice as many as John McCain: 365 compared to 173. But the weird thing is, Obama actually won the election by less than 10 million popular votes. The reason being that he was able to just squeak by in the big critical swing states (namely Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida), which collectively got him a huge number of electoral votes.
What happened in Florida is a actually a great example of just how peculiar our electoral system can be:
The Sunshine State is the quintessential mother-lode swing state; always unpredictable and worth a big chunk of electoral votes. In 2008, Obama won it by a margin of less than three percent (he got about 51 percent to McCain’s 48 percent). We’re talking about a victory of less than 300,000 votes. But because of the winner-take-all rule, Obama still got all 27 of the state’s electoral votes (and McCain got none). So depending on how you look at it, you could technically argue that the votes cast by the more than 4 million Floridians who chose McCain didn’t really end up counting for much at all.
Can a candidate win the presidency without winning the popular vote?
Indeed! It’s actually happened four different times in America’s history: In 1876 and 1888, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, respectively, won the White House even though they lost the popular vote (but won the electoral vote). And then there was the strange 1824 election, in which Andrew Jackson won more popular votes and electoral votes, but still ended up losing the election to John Quincy Adams. Turns out that Jackson’s 15 electoral vote advantage wasn’t enough to secure a required majority, and the presidency was ultimately decided by a vote in the House of Representatives. Pretty wacky.
And finally, who could forgot the 2000 election, in which Al Gore won more popular votes than George W. Bush, but lost the election (guess who’s now a big proponent of getting rid of the Electoral College?).
Why did the Founding Fathers come up with such a zany system?
Two main reasons:
a) They wanted to steer clear of the British parliamentary model, in which the chief executive (prime minister) is chosen by elected representatives of the majority party. The founders thought that it was more democratic to appoint electors from each state than to have a system in which the president was elected by Congress.
b) It came down to an issue of old-school logistics: Back in the day (like way, way back: I’m talking before phones, and trains and wheels – OK, fine, they had wheels), long distance communication and travel was a challenge. Voting for delegates at a local level was easier and less susceptible to tampering and corruption than was counting every last person’s vote throughout the whole country.
What are arguments for keeping the Electoral College?
- It forces candidates to pay at least some attention to less-populated states. It also guarantees some political recognition to rural areas, as opposed to politicians being entirely focused on on voter-rich urban centers.
- It gives a greater degree of power to minority groups by allowing the opportunity for a relatively small number of voters in each state to determine the outcome.
- It’s consistent with America’s representative system of government, and it’s just the way we’ve always done it; it’s in our Constitution dagnabbit, so leave it be!
And how about against?
- Under our current electoral system, not all votes are equal; voters in swing states and less populous states have disproportionate power. And that disenfranchises millions of voters whose votes are not as important. In a direct election, everyone’s vote would have the same weight regardless of geography.
- It gives candidates the negative incentive to focus their campaigns mostly in swing states while largely ignoring the millions of voters in populous states that tend to consistently favor one party (like California and Texas).
- It’s a super outdated system that creates the potential for a candidate to win the popular vote but still lose the election.