The Electoral College

With the election coming up soon, here are a few thoughts on the electoral college.

Before we had a United States of America, we were a loose confederation of states. So, as we moved towards getting a national constitution, there was much debate about how much power each individual state should surrender to the new national government. And people in states with small populations did not want to be swamped out in decision making power by the states with larger population. So, a compromise was reached: in the Senate, each state has equal power with two senators, and in the House the more populous states have more power with their representatives being allocated in proportion to their population.

Our founders considered whether to have the President elected by a direct popular vote, but decided against it. One of the reasons was that you might have Candidate A who was very popular in one region of the country, and ran up a huge plurality of the vote in just a few states. Candidate B might win in many states, each by a small margin. With direct popular vote, Candidate A wins. With electors, candidate B wins. The founders preferred a President who had support over as wide an area of the country as possible.

So instead of direct popular vote, we have electors. In the Constitution, Article 2 section 1 says “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”

In deciding the number of electors, the same compromise used for the House and Senate was reached for states with small and large populations: For each state there is one electoral vote for each congressional district and 2 votes for each senator, thereby giving states with smaller population 2 more electoral votes than they would get based only on their population. In addition, as per the 23rd Amendment, Washington DC gets 3 votes.

Note that each state is free to decide how it allocates its electoral votes. Presently, in all but two states, the winner of the popular vote in that state gets all of the state’s electoral votes. This “winner take all” is a tradition that developed in the 1800’s and is NOT mentioned in the constitution. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, have changed their laws to give the 2 electoral votes for their number of Senators to the winner of the popular vote in their state and each of the remaining electoral votes to the winner of each congressional district in the state. In 2012 President Obama got one electoral vote in Nebraska for winning one of the congressional districts there, and Mitt Romney got the other 4 for winning the statewide popular vote and each of the other 2 congressional districts.

What we call the “Electoral College” is the name we give to all of the electors for all of the states considered together. That name is NOT in the constitution. Each state has a meeting to allocate its electors following the election. On January 6, 2017, there will be a joint session of Congress to count the electoral votes which have been submitted by the states. The candidate who gets 270 or more electoral votes will be declared the winner.

I’d like to conclude by discussing 2000 since in that year George Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won the electoral college vote.

Al Gore had strong popularity on the 2 coasts and less in the middle of the country. He won California and New York together by over 3,000,000 votes. But in all the other states, Bush won by about 2.46 million votes, which gave Gore a popular vote victory of 540,000. If Gore’s popularity had been more evenly spread out, winning a few more states, he would have won the electoral college vote.

Many proposals to reform the electoral college system have been made over the years, but none have been enacted since the 12th amendment ins 1804. With the 2000 election in mind, several Democrat controlled states have passed a law, the National Popular Vote Bill, saying that the winner of the national popular vote would get ALL the electoral votes in their state. The bill has been enacted by RI, VT, HI, DC, MD, MA, WA, NJ, IL, NY, CA. These states were won by Al Gore in 2000. But to prevent the bill from backfiring against them, these states have said the bill only becomes law in those states once the states passing it control a majority of all the electoral votes. That’s 270 electoral votes, and so far, states with 165 electoral votes have passed it. They are 105 short.

The latest polling data show that it is possible that Donald Trump’s performance in the battleground states could give him enough electoral votes to become president while still losing the popular vote to Hilary Clinton. If that happens I am sure we will hear once again about proposals to reform the electoral college.

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