Project Wonderful

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ask an Election Nerd: Electoral College FAQs

You know what people are asking me about a lot lately? The Electoral College. Here we go!

What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is comprised of 538 people who vote on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to choose the President. This method is known as "indirect election" because although individual citizens cast votes for the Executive branch, votes are aggregated by state (in most cases) and the popular will of each state is expressed by these representatives. The Electoral College never meets as one body but instead meet on that date to cast votes in their respective state capitals.

How are electoral votes allocated?
435 votes, one per each congressional seat, which are allocated to states by population. 100 votes, one per each Senator, so 2 for each state. Plus 3 votes for the District of Columbia. These 3 votes make DC's vote equivalent to that of Wyoming, which is the least populous state. In most states electoral votes are supposed to be cast on a winner take all basis, meaning that if the popular vote in New York State is for Barack Obama, then all of its electoral votes will go to Obama. Nebraska and Maine are exceptions where electoral votes are cast by popular vote per congressional district, so it is possible for the Nebraska and Maine delegations to split their votes. In these states the remaining two electors cast their votes based on statewide popular vote.

How are Electors chosen?
The way electors are chosen depends on the state. In most cases, each party with a candidate on the ballot chooses a slate of electors, often at their state convention, and that slate casts votes in the Electoral College if their candidate wins that state's popular vote.

What if the Electors don't vote the way they're supposed to? Because Electors are individuals with free will, it is possible for them not to cast their votes in line with the vox populi of their particular state or district. These people are called "faithless electors" and you can find a list of them here. In many states, electors are required to sign a pledge that they will accurately express the will of the voters and some states have small fines or even misdemeanor charges for faithless electors. There is no federal law governing Electors in this way. The most recent case of a faithless elector was in 2000 when Barbara Lett-Simmons of Washington DC abstained in order to protest the district's lack of congressional representation. Faithless electors have never altered the overall outcome of the Presidential election.

What if there's a tie? A candidate needs 270 votes to win in the Electoral College. If a candidate fails to win a majority of the votes, the winner is chosen by the House of Representatives. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams were chosen in this manner.

How often has someone lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College? Thrice! Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George Bush in 2000.

The Electoral College system seems unfair and most Americans agree with me. So why do we have it?
Our founding fathers were not big fans of direct election and did not have faith in the general population to always make appropriate judgements. They were afraid that the voters could get hoodwinked by conniving politicians who would not act in their best interest. As one delegate to the Constitutional Convention put it, "the people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men." Back in the day, it was much more difficult to disseminate information. As another delegate argued, "the extent of the country renders it impossible, that the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the candidates." The founders also feared the "tyranny of the majority." They saw the Electoral College as a way of preventing certain regions or interest groups from ganging up on rest of the country. Advocates of the Electoral College system today point out that direct election of the Chief Executive could lead to policies that unfairly favor population centers because theoretically a candidate could win by campaigning in major cities and ignoring rural voters. Finally, to preserve the federal character of the nation, the founders wanted to ensure that Presidential candidates would not be able to ignore the needs of smaller states. These arguments are similar to those that led to the formation of our federal branch, when Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures.

I'm not really interested in making an argument for or against the Electoral College here, just in providing information. Did I leave anything out?


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