Tuesday night the nation elected its 44th president of the United States: Barack Obama. As it turns out both with a majority of electoral votes and eventually the majority of popular votes as well.
As they say, “So goes Ohio, so goes the nation,” and as it turns out this statement appeared to be true, as once Obama had been declared the victor in Ohio, in a matter of minutes, he was also declared the President of the United States.
What was interesting for me was reading some of the comments I had received from some of the international community who are members of my FaceBook Google+ and Twitter, and those who email me as well, all asking the question:
“What is this electoral college thing?”
I also heard from some Americans abroad that as the international community tuned into the television where they were, the stations were trying in vain to explain what exactly the electoral college was and how it worked. So I thought I would try and explain a little bit about it, for my international readers, but also for many Americans as well. It seems even in America very few people actually know what the electoral college is, and how it works, and why we use it to determine our presidential elections.
- What is the Electoral College?
In 1787 during the meeting of the first constitutional convention, representatives trying to decide how to elect a president discussed many ideas. The most popular idea at the time was that the Congress would be responsible for selecting its president; however some believed that the American people would not support a president whose selection was made behind closed doors, by an established roomful of men that could decide a path purely based on political majority. Others like Madison believed that the president should be elected based purely on the most popular vote by a majority of the people. This idea, of course was obliterated because it meant that in states with little population, voting for a candidate would have little effect on the election, if the candidate, for example were very popular in a state with a higher population. This meant that states with the highest populations could run candidates, and guarantee they would be elected. Instead, ultimately they decided that each state would apportion electors equal to their representatives in congress, decided by the legislature of each state.
Presently there are 538 electors in this country, equal to the representatives of both houses of congress (435 Representatives, 100 Senators) and three from the District of Columbia.
- What is the electoral value of each state and how is it determined?
Each state is granted (x number of electors), based on the (number of y representatives), from that state. The representatives are determined by the population of that state, as determined by a census of states done every 10 years. The term redistricting refers to the process that takes place every ten years in each state to redraw lines around areas within each state. This can have a huge effect on presidential elections because a state during this redistricting period could eliminate or move around a district that once leaned toward a specific party that might now include a more diverse group, or even eliminate the party altogether. Because elector numbers are based entirely on the number of representatives from that state, a state that redistricts an area commonly held by a democratic majority to include more republicans could help to sway elections in favor of their party for state representatives. Thus if a state sends more republicans to the congress than democrats, it can not only gain a majority of representatives in the congress, but also help to push their state choice of presidential candidate.
- Why are some states blue and some states red?
On the electoral map, a state which is traditionally red swings in favor of the republican, but a state that is traditionally blue, swings in favor of the democrat. In southern states, where more people tend to be religious with conservative values, they tend to elect republicans, as the modern Republican Party supports more conservative values. In areas like the East Coast and West Coast, the people tend to be more liberal and support the democrats, whose ideals more match a liberal agenda. Since the state legislature is ultimately responsible for choosing its electors, they will choose an elector that more closely fits the ideological values of the state they are in, and so all but a few states are pretty much predetermined to fit in either the category of being a red state or a blue state.
- What are these swing states?
Swing states, or purple states as they are sometimes referred to are states whose electors could choose either a republican or a democrat, and these states become the most important states for a candidate during an election cycle. Technically, the federal constitution does not outline any case where an elector must choose the candidate for which the population of his state voted for, however most states have in fact put into their own constitutions, that which prohibit electors from doing just that. Most states have also imposed laws that force a “winner take all” approach to electoral votes, thus if popularity swings in favor of one candidate, all electoral votes must go to that candidate, even if in a particular district the voting went the other way.
- What is the difference between the popular vote and the electoral vote?
Each state as I have discussed, is given a number of electors which are equal to the number of representatives that the state will send to the congress. That number becomes its point value on the electoral map. For example, California has 55 districts, so they send 55 representatives to congress, and 55 electors that decide the election for their state. Because that state tends to elect mostly democrats to their legislature and democrats to the congress, all 55 electoral votes in California go to the democrat. For a president to win the Electoral College, they must get a majority of electoral votes, at present that number is 270. If no candidate is able to get a majority, i.e. hit that magic 270 number, under the 12th amendment of the federal constitution, the election is decided by the United States House of Representatives. Technically, electors must cast two votes under the rules of our constitution, one for President and one for Vice-President, and should a majority not approve a Vice-President as well, that job goes to the United States Senate for vote.
The popular vote, which many have argued is a more appropriate way to pick the President, does not decide the election, and in four elections in our history, four presidents were elected with a majority of the electoral votes, but not by the majority of popular vote:
John Quincy Adams, 1824
Rutherford B. Hayes, 1876
Benjamin Harrison, 1888
George W. Bush, 2000
The reason why the popular vote is still not used to decide elections is that very large states with a higher population would be able to decide the election, where as smaller states with relatively lower population would have almost no effect on the election. This is easily evident by the populations in states like California, New York, and Texas. However, most of the swing states have a relatively large population, which gives proponents of the Electoral College more credence when arguing their position, because single party leaning states with heavy populations would ultimately swing an election, if not for the Electoral College.
Because of this, every ten years, swing states may change, as populations change, and it is in these states where an election can be decided. The fact is, states like California, New York, and Texas being as large as they are will always have a larger population, and growing population than the smaller states, and because of this their electoral votes will go up. If you eliminate the Electoral College and use a purely popular vote to determine the election, than the populations in states like California, or New York, or Texas will solidify the election in favor of the party their state typically leans more toward, reducing the votes in smaller states to not be counted.
However, because of the Electoral College, even as the redistricting continues, as the population in these large states grows, giving them more electoral votes, so do the electoral votes grow elsewhere, helping to maintain equality of votes throughout the Union. Because of this, and the fact that a majority is still needed to win the election, large populations leaning toward a particular party cannot hijack an election, and serve to inject at least some measure of equality in votes, even if not all votes are needed, as votes in a non-swing state mostly do not help in either case.
Having said all that, the popular vote still serves as a measure of legitimacy for some people and a president that wins the electoral victory but not the popular one, tends to absorb some amount of incredulity, and derision.