Here is basically how the Electoral College works:The fact we've had presidents that didn't get the most popular votes pretty much dispels any notion that we have about having real democracy in this country.
• Each state has the same number of electors that it has U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators. But keep in mind that the electors are not the U.S. Representatives and Senators. Since Utah has three representatives and two senators, Utah has five electors. Wyoming has three electors, because it has one representative and two senators. The three largest sources of electors are California (55), New York (31), and Texas (34). The District of Columbia, even though it is not a state, is allotted three electors. There are a total of 538 electors in the Electoral College.
• Sometime prior to the November election, each party with a candidate for president on the ballot will select a slate of electors that are pledged to vote for that party’s nominee. To use Utah as an example, in 2004 the Republicans picked five Republican party members pledged to George W. Bush and his running mate, the Democrats picked five Democratic party members pledged to Al Gore and his running mate, the Green Party picked five party members committed to Ralph Nader and his running mate…and so on.
• On election night in November, we go to the polls and cast our votes. This is where it gets confusing, since most Americans think they are voting directly for president. Technically, we are voting for one of those slates of electors, rather than for the candidate for president. In every state except Maine and Nebraska, electors are awarded according to a unit rule, meaning that the candidate whose slate has the most votes—even if it is not a majority—gets all of the electors.
• On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the winning slates of electors gather at their state capitals and cast their votes for president and vice president. These votes are sent to the Senate, where they are counted and certified before a joint session of Congress in January. That is the official vote for president.
• A candidate needs 270 or more (a simple majority) of the Electoral College votes to win. If no candidate gets a majority—which hasn’t happened since 1824—then the election is pushed into Congress. The House of Representatives, with each state delegation getting one vote, elects the president, and the Senate elects the vice president.
The Achilles heel of the Electoral College was revealed for all to see during the 2000 presidential race between George Bush and Al Gore. The popular vote for president does not determine who goes to the White House; the elector’s votes are determinative. Normally, the Electoral College vote mirrors the popular vote. However the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 resulted in the eventual “winner” actually receiving fewer votes from American voters. In the most recent
case, Al Gore received roughly 537,000 more popular votes across the country than did George W. Bush, but Bush won the disputed state of Florida when the Supreme Court stepped in to halt manual recounts. Florida’s 25 electoral votes gave Bush a total of 271—just enough to win.
The winner-take-all aspect of the Electoral College also tends to distort our perceptions of the American electorate. It pushes us to talk about Red-state voters vs. Blue-state voters, which is obviously an oversimplification of the partisan divide in the United States. The Electoral College is biased in favor of smaller, more rural states, because they are entitled to proportionally more electors than they would have in a straight popular vote. This reflects a compromise between large and small states at the Constitutional Convention.