I remember the very first time I heard the term “electoral college.” I was 9 years old and in Mrs. Stanton’s 4th grade class. It was never truly explained to us, but I remember thinking why does this college decide who is the President instead of us. I don’t think that most people’s understanding of the Electoral College has become much clearer. Many think that it’s an antiquated system that needs to be done away with and that we should stick to the popular vote system only. Others believe that given that most of the “blue states” are on the east and west coast and most of the “red states” are in the middle, that the candidates would never focus on the voters who are in their opposing states and would thereby disenfranchise them.
I doubt that the Electoral College has ever seen more controversy than in 2000 after the Bush/Gore election, when the final count of electoral votes was decided by the Supreme Court. So, here we are again, smack dab in the middle of another squeaker of an election and I’m thinking that the Electoral College is once again going to be put under the microscope. So, in an effort to help all of us understand exactly who and what the Electoral College is, I decided to do a little research.
The Founding Fathers feared the direct popular election option. There were no organized national political parties yet, no structure by which to choose and limit the number of candidates. In addition, travel and communication was slow and difficult at that time. A very good candidate could be popular regionally, but remain unknown to the rest of the country. A large number of regionally popular candidates would thus divide the vote and not indicate the wishes of the nation as a whole.
Essentially, in an effort to compromise between those who wanted congress to decide the Presidency and those who wanted the states to decide, the Electoral College was devised. Obviously, following a parliamentary system of choosing the President would not work in a free society. There would be no separation of powers and we’d have the Legislative branch in bed with the Executive branch. The founders didn’t want differing factions in the country to gain too much power and thereby decide the elections, so each state was given their own set of electoral votes based on population. This way, a union faction, for instance wouldn’t get too much power, or a minority faction or a big business faction wouldn’t be able to have all the power in deciding the elections and there would have to be some compromise among the varying groups. These days, some would argue, and probably rightfully so, that big business decides the elections and that we as citizens have very little to say in the matter. However, that’s a discussion for another time.
So, each state is given a number of electoral votes depending on the size of their population. Each state has at least 3 electoral votes; 1 for each member of the House of Representatives and one for each member of Congress from their home state. So, states like South Dakota that have a lot of land mass, but not a large population would be given three electoral votes. However, a state like California which has a very large population but not as much land mass, would receive 55 electoral votes. Now, just to complicate matters even more, constitutionally, the electors don’t have to vote for who wins the popular vote in their state. Apparently, the founding fathers didn’t trust the masses to make up their own minds. However, through the years, an unwritten agreement has been made that the electors would in fact cast their votes for the candidate who won the popular vote in their states. Some states have enacted laws that prohibit electors from casting votes for the losing candidate, to ensure that only the candidate with the most popular votes receives the electoral votes.
Currently, there are a total of 538 electoral votes available. The first candidate to get to 270 votes wins the presidency. But, not so fast! What happens if nobody gets to 270, or if there’s a tie? Well, according to the 12th amendment, the house will vote on the Presidency. However, the senate votes on the Vice Presidency, so we could possibly see a Romney Presidency and a Biden Vice Presidency, but never fear, the chances of that happening are so slim, it’s not really worth considering.
So, once the election results are all finalized in the November election, the Electoral College meets in December to cast their votes for the winning candidate of the election. Why so late? Originally, it was because it took so long to count the hand cast ballots and to travel to wherever they were meeting in order to cast their votes. Now, it’s just done out of tradition and formality.
For those of us who are historically challenged, like I am, you may think that the 2000 election was the first time the Electoral College caused the winner of the popular vote to lose, but the winner of the Electoral College votes to win. Not so. We’ll talk about that in my next post.
I’m anxious to hear your opinions on the Electoral College. Do you think we should keep it or is it an antiquated system that needs to be disposed of? Leave your comments and let us know what you’re thinking.
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