Democracy & Government

The Electoral College, Explained

For the second time in as many decades, a constitutional appendix has foiled the will of the majority of US voters.

The Electoral College, Explained
 

 

 

Some of you may be wondering this morning: “Why are we having another election where the candidate who wins the popular vote doesn’t get the White House? Are there plans to change the Electoral College?”

 


 

Short answer: If the numbers hold, this will be the second time in less than 20 years that the occupant of the White House will have been chosen, not by the voters, but by one of America’s constitutional curiosities. While Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have eked out a two-tenths of a percentage-point victory in the popular vote for the presidency, there’s no chance of her claiming the White House. Under the US Constitution, the president is selected not by a direct vote of citizens but by electors who, in most states, are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. By that count, Donald Trump is the clear winner with 279 Electoral College votes to Clinton’s 228. Over the years there have been efforts to do away with the Electoral College — especially after 2000, when it awarded Republican George W. Bush the White House after Al Gore won the popular vote. So far, however, none have come close to succeeding.

Origins of the Electoral College

The Electoral College represents a compromise among the drafters of the US Constitution — some of whom wanted Congress to pick the president while others argued for direct election by the people — and a victory for those who worried that young nation’s industrial centers would dominate its less populous rural interior. It’s no accident that the last two beneficiaries of an Electoral College win were favorites of what we today call red states. The number each state’s electors is pegged to the size of its congressional delegation. But because each state — regardless of how many voters live there — gets two electors for each of its senators, the Electoral College gives an extra edge to less populous rural states which have long been Republican strongholds. The Democrats’ strength in the urban centers is concentrated in relatively few states, giving them a smaller Electoral College base. Since every state except Nebraska and Maine award electors on a winner-take-all basis, a candidate able to pile up victories in sparsely populated states can win the presidency without winning the popular vote by pulling out narrow victories in a few larger states. That’s what Trump did on Tuesday.

How Does the Electoral College Work?

The Electoral College has no campus. It’s run by two employees of the Federal Register, who spend most of their days preparing highly technical and legalistic copy for that publication, a daily compendium of new regulations and other official notices released by the US government. Once every four years, however, they play key roles in electing a new president.

The actual presidential election is a three part process that begins on Election Day when, by casting a ballot for a presidential candidate, voters effectively vote for that candidate’s slate of electors. These are usually party loyalists, donors or other key players the candidate or the candidates’ party wants to reward. In all but two states the candidate who wins the state, regardless of his or her margin of victory, gets all of the electors. By law, these electors will gather in their respective state capitals on Dec. 19 for the second stage of the process — officially casting their votes. Generally the electors vote as they are pledged, though there is now a petition at Change.org to ask this year’s crop to do otherwise. The states’ governors certify the tally and complete certificates (some of them quite elaborate). The certificates are then sent to a nondescript federal office building in Washington, where the Federal Register staffers compile them and, eventually, take them to the US Capitol for a formal tabulation before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, with Vice President Joe Biden presiding. (Gore had to preside over the tally of his own defeat in 2001.)

There was a time when Federal Register employees were fairly casual about walking the certificates up to the Capitol, but things tightened up after 2000, when the Electoral College, for the first time since 1888, played a decisive role in choosing the president. “Let me just say we’ve changed some procedures,” says Amy Bunk, the Federal Register’s director of legal affairs and policy and, if there were such a title, the “dean” of nation’s Electoral College.

Bunk, who has helped gear up the Electoral College for the past three presidential elections, is good-humored about her role, which sometimes involves calling states and reminding them of their duties. “It’s one of those quirky parts of our jobs,” she said. To help voters better understand the institution, the National Archives has created a website for the Electoral College, complete with historical maps and an explanatory video. “We are that cool,” Bunk quips.

Efforts to Get Rid of the Electoral College

Over the years, the Electoral College has been much derided, including by its most recent beneficiary.

In addition to the fact that the Electoral College sometimes contradicts the will of the electorate, there’s also lingering fear that a strong third party candidate could prevent any candidate from achieving a 270 majority, throwing the election into the House of Representatives, something that hasn’t happened since 1877.

By the Electoral College’s own count, there have been at least 700 measures introduced in Congress at various times to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. The most recent came from former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. At the beginning of every session of Congress while he was in office, the Chicago Democrat regularly introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to establish direct popular election of the president. Jackson left office in 2012, however, and since then, none of his colleagues appear to have taken up the cause.

Meanwhile, a group called National Popular Vote has come up with a plan to end-around the cumbersome process of enacting an constitutional amendment. The idea is to get states representing a majority of the Electoral College vote to pledge their electors to the winner of the popular vote. So far, legislatures in 11 states representing 165 Electoral College votes — well short of the 270 needed to win the presidency — have agreed to do so. The effort has garnered bipartisan support, however. Two years ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican who was one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in this year’s election, endorsed the proposed compact.

Supporters of the National Popular Vote initiative say they want to upend a system that, in recent presidential election years, has seen candidates focusing on the same handful of crucial battleground states and neglecting the rest. “It is a non-partisan effort to make every voter, in every state, politically relevant in every presidential election,” John Koza, the initiative’s leader, said in a statement to BillMoyers.com. In addition to guaranteeing that the winner of the popular vote would win the White House, he wrote, making the Electoral College a non-factor would “make voters in every state politically relevant to the candidates and their campaigns.”

The Electoral College is not without defenders: Federal Judge Richard Posner has argued that “despite its lack of Democratic pedigree” its the best system for picking a president without endless divisiveness and recounts. At this point, with no apparent interest in a Republican-controlled Congress amending the Electoral College out of the Constitution and Republicans holding a mammoth edge in control of the state legislatures the National Popular Vote wants to woo into its compact, it looks like it’s the system we’ll be using to pick our presidents for the foreseeable future.

Kathy Kiely

Kathy Kiely, a Washington, DC-based journalist and teacher, has reported and edited national politics for a number of news organizations, including USA TODAY, National Journal, The New York Daily News and The Houston Post. She been involved in the coverage of every presidential campaign since 1980. Follow her on Twitter: @kathykiely.