Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Electoral College Simplified

The Electoral College is one of those things that a lot of people don't really understand. Even I had only a vague idea of exactly how it worked, so I thought it would be good to post this section from my political science textbook. This is so far the best breakdown I've read.
Here is basically how the Electoral College works:

• 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.
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.

1 comment:

  1. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Elections wouldn't be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    Now 2/3rds of the states and voters are ignored — 19 of the 22 smallest and medium-small states, and big states like California, Georgia, New York, and Texas. The current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states, and not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution, ensure that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Voter turnout in the “battleground” states has been 67%, while turnout in the “spectator” states was 61%. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado– 68%, Iowa –75%, Michigan– 73%, Missouri– 70%, New Hampshire– 69%, Nevada– 72%, New Mexico– 76%, North Carolina– 74%, Ohio– 70%, Pennsylvania — 78%, Virginia — 74%, and Wisconsin — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska — 70%, DC — 76%, Delaware –75%, Maine — 77%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Rhode Island — 74%, and Vermont — 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas –80%, Kentucky — 80%, Mississippi –77%, Missouri — 70%, North Carolina — 74%, and Virginia — 74%; and in other states polled: California — 70%, Connecticut — 74% , Massachusetts — 73%, Minnesota — 75%, New York — 79%, Washington — 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas (6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia (3), Maine (4), Michigan (17), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (31), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes — 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com



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