The US Electoral College

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Someone posed this riddle- what college has no walls, no tuition, and no students? The Answer is the US Electoral College. Its members meet in the 50 State Capitols and not together under one roof. The members are determined by the vote in the seperate states. Members of Congress and employees of the Federal government are prohibited from serving as an Elector in order to maintain the balance between the legislative and executive branches of the Federal government.
On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December they cast the ballot which elects the President of the United States.
Whichever candidate recieves 270 votes out of 538 wins. If this decision disagrees with the popular vote (like it did in the year 2000) it is this vote not the popular vote, held in November, that is binding.

How it all started

The founding fathers of the
United States of America faced a very difficult question at the birth of that nation. How much power could they entrust with the people, and how much with representatives?

The Electoral College system was chosen over a direct vote system. They instituted a series of checks and balances and wrote into the United States Constitution an
Electoral College process. At that time the word college signified any group of people working towards a common end rather than a place of learning. They also wanted to avoid disrupting the delicate balance of power between states.

One source stated that the idea for an Electoral College came from German federalism with various principalities of that age voting for a central figure to rule the Empire.

The 2008 Popular Vote

If the Popular vote were the one certified, the TV networks would not have red or blue states and the final results would look like

  • Obama 65,125,043
  • McCain 57,178,049
  • Nader 672,774
  • Barr 497,206
  • Baldwin 179,035
  • McKinney 145,725

Why Have an Electoral College

One reason for the existance of the Electoral College is that a hand full of states could steal the election if it were the direct vote which was certified. The top ten states by population shown in the 2000 census were

  • California
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • Georgia
That census listed 152 Million people in those states or 54 percent of the US population. Direct vote certification would give an advantage to these ten states. Not everyone is convinced that this is wrong.

Another reason was to maintain the identities of the states. If everyone in 1790 had voted directly then the state governmental bodies might have felt threatened. This way they cast the ballots in their own states and nobody will question whether these governmental bodies are superfluous in the face of an overarching national identity.

Fundamental Flaws

Ever since grade school children in the US have been taught the 'one person-one vote' principle, and the idea that everyone has an equal voice in our government. This has never been the case in the U.S.Presidential Elections. Once the Political Conventions decide what names to put on the ballot then people go to the polls and vote, but what they are really deciding is who their state wants to support in the Electoral College.

A little mathematics on the year 2000 census data gives the following


  • 372,045 Adults
  • 10 Electoral votes
  • This gives 37,204 people per vote.

New Mexico
  • 269,214 Adults
  • 5 Electoral votes
  • This gives 53,843 people per vote.

  • 25,052,100 Adults
  • 55 Electoral votes
  • This gives 455,500 people per vote

As if this weren't bad enough, forty-eight of the fifty states are winner-take-all, this means a candidate with just over half of that states popular votes gets all of the electoral votes from that state. Maine and Nebraska are the exceptions and in 2008 it appears that Nebraska will split its Electoral Votes four to one. This system gives different states different representation.

Third Parties

Since the days of Abraham Lincoln third parties have been able to garner electoral votes only five times. The most recent was 1968 when George Wallace and his American Independent Party won the states of Arkansas,Louisiana,Mississippi,Alabama, and Georgia. There is no hope of winning office that way. There is another way that a third party candidate can influence things. Wallace tried it unsuccessfully that year. By winning just enough states that neither of the two major parties gets 2701. Then between Election day and the time the Electoral College votes he would cut a deal with one or the other to have them agree to his policies in exchange for his votes. This ploy is just one more reason for not having an Electoral College.
Most voters in the US who vote third party do so because there is some policy statement or some thing about the two major candidates which the voter adamantly rejects. The winner-take-all plan gives such people no voice in the outcome.

The Twelth Amendment

The Constitution has been amended. A little over two hundred years ago, in the popular vote, the people of the United States voted for Thomas Jefferson to be President and Aaron Burr to be Vice President. As the system was then set up the person with the most votes in the Electoral College became President and the second choice became Vice President. However Jefferson and Burr both got 73 votes. Hardly anyone remembers the contributions Burr made to the US Government. Jefferson on the other hand is remembered as one of that nations greatest presidents. Since that day there have been seperate ballots for President and Vice President but it took an amendment to the U.S.Constitution to make this change.

Further History

Someone once said Those who will not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. Some may consider the election of 1824 a mistake.
Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but he was up against a man whose family was already entrenched. So John Quincy Adams was selected to be our fifth president. Four years later Jackson got his turn and became president.
Then in 1876 Rutherford B Hayes won the Electoral vote. He did so because all the small states were for him while the more populous ones went for Samuel Tildon. It was proof that the Electoral College did what it was designed to do- empower states equally regardless of their density.
Then in 1888 another mistake was made when Benjamin Harrison lost by 95,713 votes in the popular election but carried the Electoral College by 65. This denied a popular president Grover Cleveland
re-election. Four years later Cleveland got his second term.
Which brings us to the twenty-first Century. During the 2000 Election George W Bush carried the electoral college by a vote of 271-266 losing the popular vote by about 538 thousand out of 104 million votes cast. Like John Quincy Adams his family had already had one president.
In that year also Green Party Candidate Ralph Nader recieved 2,882,728 votes. If he had recieved even 2 electoral votes then the election would have gone to the House of Representatives to decide.

Four years later Bush won both the direct popular vote and the Electoral College Vote with 286 electoral votes.

Possible Reform

Newspapers, television and even websites like
President Elect keep the electorate informed and updated on what is happening. But if one thinks there is a problem then how do you fix it?
One possible solution to the problem would be to fix the allocation of delegates to the Electoral College differently.
The most promising idea is to have electors pledge to vote for whoever got the most votes nationwide regardless of who won in their own state. Other proposals out there include having the states hold a popular election, then the candidates receive electoral votes based on percentage . If then a state had ten electoral votes, and Candidate A received 70% of the popular vote, Candidate B received 18%, and Candidate C received 12%, then Candidate A would receive seven electoral votes, Candidate B two, and Candidate C one. In a worst case scenario a president could be elected with a minimum of 42% of the popular vote. Another more recent suggestion is to have the states split their Electoral votes so that they would cast one vote for each congressional district (representing the candidate who won that district) and then have two extra delegates who would be pledged to the winner of that state's popular vote.

Another idea is to have an instant runoff. Each voter would rank the candidates for example

Reform Party =1
Green Party =2
Democrat =3
Republican =4
Libertarian Party =5 Then if nobody gets fifty percent the candidate (or party) with the least votes is eliminated and the votes retabulated with the voters next choice substituted. When this is reduced to two candidates(or parties)a clear winner emerges and he gets the electoral votes. For More on instant runoffs see the article on Voting Methods.

The question remains: which is more important- One man,one vote- or not disenfranchising the lesser states? This is a question to which they may never find a suitable answer. And until they do this is the way the United States of America will choose its President.

1 As it turns out Nixon had 301 votes anyway so the strategy didn't work.

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