The Electoral College

Number of electoral votes each state has in the 2016 presidential election (graphic courtesy Gage, 2012 Electoral College map, CC BY-SA 4.0)

How the Electoral College Works

Generally speaking the electoral college system in the United States works as follows:

  • Each state is allocated a certain number of electoral votes based on its population.* This election states have between 3 and 55 electoral votes.
  • The total number of electoral delegates (this election 538) is divided among states. Changes can take place in the apportionment of delegates each election as states’ populations increase or decrease. For example, recently Ohio lost two delegates and Florida gained two delegates.
  • Electoral delegates are people nominated in each state by their political party.
  • Electoral delegates are “voted in” proportionally based on the popular vote in each state – this is election day when the voters are checking the box for “president X” or “president Y.”
  • Once the electoral delegates are “chosen/voted in” they cast their votes for president in the electoral college. This actually isn’t a centralized meeting somewhere, but rather the delegates go to their state’s capital and officially vote for president.

The workings of this system are obscure to many. In most states you go to vote on election day and you check the box that says “president X” or “president Y;” you won’t even see the names of who the electoral delegates are (these names are only written in eight states).

Gaping Flaws in the Electoral College System

There is a reason why getting rid of the electoral college has been the subject of the largest number of constitutional amendment proposals. So what are some obvious flaws with this system?

Electoral delegates are not bound by law to vote one way or another – That’s right, a delegate who is nominated by “party X” and approved by popular vote in their state can arrive at their capital’s electoral college and at the last moment vote for “president Y.” Over the history of the United States there have actually been 157 electoral delegates who have changed their vote, however to-date the margin of total votes was always enough that this has not swayed an election. While there is no law preventing this, 26 states do have laws that punish electoral delegates who change their votes.

Unequal representation – It’s easy to see how the electoral delegate system under or over-represents votes from different states. Just compare the most populous state California with the least populous state Wyoming:

California

  • 55 electoral delegates
  • Population: 37,253,956 (2010 US Census)
  • Each vote equals 0.0000014 delegate
Wyoming

  • 3 electoral delegates
  • Population: 563,626 (2010 US Census)
  • Each vote equals 0.0000053 delegate

What do all those decimal places translate into? These mean that one person’s vote in Wyoming is equivalent to more than three peoples’ votes in California. It brings back memories of the three-fifths rule where slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person when determining a state’s total population in 1787.

What happens when this discrepancy in a vote’s value is magnified on a national level? You can end up with results like we did in the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush won with 50,456,002 people checking his name on their ballots, while Gore lost with the majority of votes – 50,999,897 people checking his name on their ballots; Gore had 543,895 more votes than Bush.

Amazingly this wasn’t the first time in our nation’s history that the winner of the popular vote actually lost – it was the fourth.

Most states (48) are winner-take-all – Once a candidate wins the majority of the electoral delegates from a state, he or she gets all the remaining delegates. For example, this election New York has 29 electoral delegates. Once a candidate wins a majority of those delegates – 15 – he or she gets the full 29 electoral delegate count added to his or her national count. This further compounds states’ unequal representation. It should be noted that the winner-take-all system is not an inherent component of the electoral college system. Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that are not winner-take-all.

International Perspective

The US electoral college is even recognized as being undemocratic by many of today’s modern nations. Ironically, Germany’s constitution – which occupying American forces signed off on in 1949 – is a good example that highlights the flaws of the electoral college. Look at the guarantees German elections have versus those in the United States. Germany characterizes its elections as being direct, equal, general, free, and confidential. Can the US say the same when it comes to elections being direct, equal, and free?

German election system

  • Direct – People elect members of government directly or by means of a list. Not indirectly through electoral delegates.
  • Equal – Each vote has the same weight.
  • Free – Every citizen 18 years of age or older can vote (including those convicted of criminal offenses).
United States’ electoral college

  • Not direct – The electoral college uses an electoral delegate system.
  • Not equal – Your vote is worth more or less than someone’s vote from a different state.
  • Not free – More than 5.3 million Americans cannot vote because of felony convictions and subsequent disenfranchisement .

While old systems like slavery, citizenship and the right to vote for non-Caucasians, and the right to vote for women have been righted over the nation’s history, direct and equal voting remains elusive. The electoral college is as antiquated as any of these backwards systems with its roots stemming from some of our nation’s framers’ fears about too much democracy. Nonetheless, this is how the presidential election works in our country so at present we ought to at least understand how it works.

Constitutional Republic Argument

It should also be noted that there is a very valid constitutional republic argument in favor of keeping the electoral college. When the US was formed states had far more power than they do today, power that has slowly been usurped by the federal government. In such an environment one can see much better why a national popular vote would be detrimental, because states would be represented unequally in the union. However this argument must be reconciled with the reality on ground today and the concept of one person, one vote.

*Being more specific, the total number of electoral delegates a state is entitled to are equal to the number of US congressional representatives (House and Senate) in that state. For example, Wyoming has two senators and one House representative, and therefore has three electoral college delegates.

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