Explaining the electoral college


Credit: Flickr user omarmartinez22

Pictured above is a map of the United States with the electoral college votes of each state. The electoral college is the system, outlined in the constitution, of choosing, or electing, the President of the United States. Many Americans believe this process is unfair, and it has come under intense controversy in recent years.

Nathan Zhao and Matt Karle

Americans will head to the polls on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 to choose the country’s next president. Voters from across the nation will be faced with a decision that will define the United States government for the next four years. While every vote matters, it isn’t the number of checked boxes on ballots that determines the winner of the presidential race, but a different system entirely: the United States Electoral College.

The Electoral College is the group of citizens, known as electors, who are responsible for deciding the winner of the presidency. The system has been in use for nearly 230 years and is outlined in the United States Constitution. Each state has a set number of electors equal to the number of Congressional representatives of that state.

This means that a state such as Wyoming, with two senators and one house representative, will have three electors and therefore three votes for president. Meanwhile, California has 55 electors. Since the number of House Representatives per state is determined by population, the number of electors is likewise determined by that state’s population.

Electors are selected by political parties in each state and pledge support to a candidate. In 48 states and Washington D.C., the electoral votes are decided by a winner-takes-all system. If the state’s population votes in the majority towards one candidate, all of the electors will be ones that had pledged for that candidate. In two states, Maine and Nebraska, the electors are selected by district majority votes and are then proportioned within the state.

In order to win, a candidate needs to achieve at least 270 electoral votes.

Although the Electoral College is present and ingrained in the American political system, many Americans do not know what it is. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 43 percent of Americans surveyed do not know what the Electoral College does.

In addition, the survey found that 20 percent of Americans think the Electoral College either “trains those aspiring for higher political office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates.”

The Electoral College system has faced intense controversy in recent years. Opponents say that it is not “true democracy.” Instead, they see it as a system in which not all votes are equal, since a small group of unknown citizens (the electors) are deciding the vote with no legal obligation to any pledge they make.

It is true that the system of the Electoral College can stray far from the system of popular vote. In one unlikely scenario, a candidate can win through the College with only 22 percent of the nation’s votes. In addition, electors can be “faithless,” and in 26 states face no legal repercussions. A faithless elector will pledge his or her support to a candidate, but will vote for another (or abstain).

Many opponents of the system are unhappy to learn that their vote could be meaningless, as some electors can vote any way they please. This has occurred multiple times in the nation’s history, but never has it changed the outcome of an election.

Furthermore, opponents note, votes in each state can be disproportionate to the number of electoral votes they possess. For example, while it may seem unfair that California has 55 electoral votes, the number is in fact disproportionate to the state’s population. According to the US 2014 Census, the state has over 12 percent of America’s population – yet only over 10 percent of the electoral votes.

Meanwhile, according to the same census, Wyoming has only 0.1 percent of the nation’s population, but is given 0.5 percent of electoral votes. This is five times the impact of a popular vote system, and is seen as unfair by opponents.

Advocates of the system recognize these statistics are true; however, they believe that these statistics must be overlooked in order to ensure a just system.. They point out that a system of popular vote is one in which “mob rule” can easily prevail. In such a system, they state, the majority would always have its interest served by presidential candidates, at the expense of the minority.

These supporters of the system say that with the electoral college system, candidates do not have an incentive to focus their campaigns on urbanized areas with large populations. With the College’s system, they must win the majority of the state to gain any votes at all, and need many states to win the election. In a popular vote, however, the candidates would be able to focus only on urban areas with large populations, and work only towards gaining that large sum of votes. This would mean that those in rural areas, like much of Wyoming, might be neglected entirely.

Supporters also note that the Electoral College isolates voter fraud and corruption to states. For instance, if somehow thousands of false votes were produced in Vermont, this would have massive impact on a popular vote based election. However, with the Electoral College, these fraudulent votes would merely win the state, hence contributing only 3 electoral votes towards the election, creating a minimized impact.

Moreover, according to advocates of the system, the Electoral College emphasizes the role and importance of states as components of the federal system. They believe that a state’s opinion as a group should have greater value to the federal government than an equally populated portion of another state. The country is built upon a political system with federal and state levels. According to advocates, removing the electoral college is a step towards removing political power from the states. Extending this, they see it as a step towards dismantling the federation in favor of a single centralized government.

As the election approaches, it is important that citizens understand their role in choosing the President. It is necessary that everyone, whether or not they can vote this November, understand the inner workings of this system, as they will be the ones to decide the future of the United States.