Getting to Know the Electoral College, Issue IV ~ What Happens after Election Day?
So here we are! Election day has come and gone, and where do we find ourselves? By now, citizens have (often unknowingly) chosen their representative members in the electoral college, primarily via the winner of their states’ popular vote. But to be clear, no one has been elected yet. The election itself occurs long after election day, and this is where things really start to get exciting.
On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, each state’s appointed electors gather at their state capitols to cast the only actual votes for president and vice president. Originally, the office of vice president was awarded to the second-highest finisher in the presidential race. However, due to the unforeseen complications of members of competing parties working together in the loftiest recesses of the executive branch, congress passed the 12th amendment, which established a separate vote for president and vice president. Because this vote would be held by the same electors chosen by the presidential candidate winning a state’s popular vote, the result has been that the office of vice president is always filled by the presidential candidate’s chosen running mate.
But the matter of who the electors cast their ballots for still remains. As we discussed in Issue II, candidates and their parties typically choose slates of electors that are under a high degree of political pressure to vote for the candidate who chose them, but they are often not legally bound to do so. An elector voting for a candidate other than the one he/she is associated with is known as a “faithless elector.”
The graphic above, created by of FairVote, depicts the state-by-state laws regarding faithless electors. 20 states (grey above) have no law to prevent an elector from voting for absolutely whatever candidate (or even non-candidate) they chose. Of the 30 states that do require electors to vote for their pledged candidates, 21 provide no penalty or mechanism to prevent a faithless vote. That means that of our 50 states, only 9 actually impose penalties upon faithless electors or require their votes to be cancelled and replaced with a “faithful” vote. But we should stress that even in states that impose such penalties, they are generally nominal and not always effective. In 2016 alone, four different Washington state electors each accepted a $1,000 fine to cast votes for candidates other than Hillary Clinton, who won the state’s popular vote.
So what does all this mean? It means that in the end, the members of the electoral college, each of whom represent between 150 thousand and 800 thousand citizens’ votes, are largely able to contradict the collective will of the population they represent by voting for a different candidate with very little or, more often, absolutely no legal repercussions. In short, your vote for president could matter. But it also might not, as was the case with the millions of citizens represented by the 7 faithless electors in 2016. We think this is a problem.
At this point, the electors have voted, and our journey can take one of two paths. On the first path, by far the most traveled-by, one candidate wins a majority of the votes of the electoral college (currently 270). On January 6th, these votes are officially counted in a joint session of congress, and the president of the senate (the sitting vice president) announces the new president and vice president. Alternatively, if no candidate succeeds in winning a majority of the electoral college votes (a situation the founding fathers expected would occur far more frequently), the decision then falls to the House of Representatives.
The House will then conduct its vote in 1-state blocks, with each state receiving exactly one vote, awarded to the candidate receiving the majority of votes from that state’s representatives. The result of this process is to dramatically skew voting power away from more populous states, much more than under the framework of the electoral college system in which one candidate does receive an electoral majority. In such a scenario, California, with 53 U.S. representatives and 39.3 million people, would have the same say in the election as Wyoming, with 1 single U.S. representative and just 0.6 million people — effectively amplifying the voting power of Wyoming citizens to 67 times that of Californians. The House of Representatives has so far decided 2 presidential elections — in 1800 and 1824.
At Voters for a Voice, what troubles us most about presidential elections under the electoral college system, even more than its inherent disproportionate weighting of votes from citizens of different states, is the lack of certainty it provides. The ability for unqualified electors to autonomously choose to vote in direct contradiction to the collective will of the hundreds of thousands they have been elected to represent is frightening, to say the least.
However, even with the systemic problems we have discussed over these last few issues, the electoral college system still has its fair share of defenders. Stay tuned for next week’s issue, in which we will discuss the “states’ rights” argument in favor of the electoral college system and for Issue VI, our review of Enlightened Democracy — The Case for the Electoral College.
References: See links throughout article for source material. For further reading, I encourage readers to explore these resources provided by FairVote on the presidential election process. All opinions in this article are my own and are not intended to reflect the thoughts or opinions of referenced materials.
Interested in learning more about the electoral college, how it works and what gets us so wound up about it? Check out our website and past/upcoming issues in this “Getting to Know the Electoral College” series: