The Electoral College is an often misunderstood part of the Presidential election process. However, its importance was underscored in the Presidential election of 2000, when Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote and ultimately the Presidency.
What Is the Electoral College?
When the Constitution was written, some politicians of the age felt that putting the power of electing the President and Vice President solely in the hands of the population could be dangerous. Yet they felt that it was important for the President and Vice President to be elected by vote, rather than appointed. The Electoral College was the compromise on which they settled.
The Electoral College is a group of elected representatives from each state who cast the official votes for President. The number of College members that each state is allowed depends on the population of the state. On a designated voting day, which is always the Monday following the second Wednesday of December, the Electoral College members from each state meet at their state’s Capitol to cast their votes for President. Of 538 available Electoral College votes, a minimum of 270 are required to elect a President or Vice President.
How Are Electoral College Members Elected?
Federal law permits each state to decide how its Electoral College members are selected. Today, every state uses the short ballot method to allow the voters to select the Electoral College members that will represent them. Elector candidates are selected by each party earlier in the voting year by various methods including primary votes and nominations.
There are a few rules on who may and may not be nominated as Electors. No one who currently holds a high-ranking federal office may serve as Elector, nor can anyone who has engaged in insurrection against the United States.
In order to avoid confusing voters, only the names of the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates are listed on the ballot. However, the voters are not actually casting votes for President and Vice President; they are in reality casting votes for electors.
All but two states employ a winner takes all strategy in elector elections. This means that all electors are pledged to support the candidate that wins the popular election in that state. Maine and Nebraska divide their electors, giving one to each congressional district and electing the remaining two according to aggregate statewide vote.
Although Electoral College members are expected to vote for the candidate that won their state’s popular vote, there is no federal law that requires them to do so. Electoral College members may cast their votes for any candidate they choose.
Those who vote against the wishes of their state’s population are known as faithless electors. Several states have passed legislation making it a misdemeanor to vote against the state’s popular choice. However, it is unknown if these laws would stand up to a federal challenge.
The Popular Vote
Since all states currently use the short ballot method of selecting electors, it is easy to compile a tally of the popular vote for President and Vice President. In most cases, the popular vote mirrors the Electoral College vote that will follow, and the popular selection becomes President. However, this is not always the case.
In four elections throughout United States history, the winner of the popular vote has not won the Electoral College vote and has not become President. The most recent of these elections occurred in 2000, when Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote but after finally receiving Florida’s Electoral College vote, George W. Bush won the election.
The Electoral College assigns varying numbers of electors to each state depending on that state’s population. While this ensures that larger, more populated states have relatively more voting power, it also provides more voting power to each voter in a smaller state. Opponents sometimes criticize this system as being weighted towards Republicans, who tend to dominate the smaller states.
Many experts feel that the Electoral College system no longer meets the needs of the American people. Several alternatives have been proposed, although none have yet gained momentum.
Proportional voting is a commonly suggested alternative. In proportional voting, each state would divide its votes according to the portion of the popular vote that each candidate received. Proponents of this system argue that it would make voting more fair and give third party candidates a chance of winning. Opponents argue that it would dilute the state’s power and make it more difficult for any candidate to obtain the necessary 270 Electoral College votes.
Using an interstate compact is slowly starting to gain traction. Under this system, each state’s electors would vote for the candidate who received the majority of the national popular vote, rather than the popular vote in his or her state. Both New Jersey and Maryland have passed legislation that will move their states to that plan, provided a minimum number of other states also agree.
Many experts feel that an interstate compact system would effectively circumvent the problems of the Electoral College without the need to change the United States Constitution. Under the provisions of the Constitution, each state is free to set its own methods of electing its Electoral College members. Opponents, however, feel that such a plan is against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution.