The Electoral College: Explained
The government of the United States works in interesting ways. One of the more controversial areas of our government is the Electoral College. Contrary to popular belief, when we go out to vote on Election Day we are not actually voting for presidential candidates. We are really voting for who we want our state electoral delegates to vote for and then whichever candidate has more electoral votes in the end wins the election. Usually though, in most elections the popular vote and the Electoral College vote are the same. There have been only 5 instances in the history of the United States where the Electoral College voted differently than the popular vote. The most recent upset happened 2 weeks ago when Republican candidate Donald Trump won more electoral delegates than his Democrat competitor Hillary Clinton. This upset a lot of people, especially since Clinton won the popular vote and now many of her supporters have gone out to protest the Trump victory and the Electoral College. Anyway there are many questions about the Electoral College, regarding what it is and what it does. The point of this essay is to shed some light on what the Electoral College is, why it was created, how it works, and how it has influenced elections in the past and present.
To understand the Electoral College, we first have to learn why it was created in the first place. The Articles of Confederation were the original government implemented by the founding fathers in 1776. The Articles were not the most effective government, so they were repealed in 1787 and the founding fathers began drafting the Constitution. “Designing the mode of selecting the President was one of the most difficult tasks that confronted the framers” (Miller 2011, 3). (Note — “The Framers” and the founding fathers are the same people) They had to come up with a way to have the people and states represented equally in the new national legislature. “Small-state delegates wanted to preserve the principle of state equality, while large-state delegates wanted state representation proportional to population” (Miller 2011, 3). “The Founding Fathers did not want an elected President to be dependent on those in power who elected him, especially on those who constituted a legislative branch of the Government…, The Founding Fathers did not want the people to elect a President directly. They believed that ordinary people could hardly make the right choice of a President due to their lack of knowledge about individuals who would make good Presidents. Also, many researchers believe that the Founding Fathers wanted to avoid the “tyranny of majority,” which would depreciate the role of small states in electing a President” (Belenky 2013, 4). Taking into account the fears of the founding fathers and the proposals from Virginia and New Jersey, the Committee on Postponed Matters (the Third Committee of Eleven) came up with the Electoral College System. In the days that followed the proposal of the Electoral College System, a lot of debating went on, and the system was accepted within the week.
How the Electoral College works is the next question on our list. “It created what was expected to be a two-stage election. Each state would appoint, in a manner determined by its legislature, electors equal in number to its total representation in Congress… Each elector would have one duty only: to cast two equal and unranked votes for President for two different candidates, at least one of whom was not a resident of the elector’s state. In the event no candidate was supported by a majority of electors (thereby winning more than 25% of the electoral votes), or in the event that two (or more) candidates with the required majority were tied, there would be a ‘runoff election’ in Congress among the top five electoral vote-getters (in the first contingency) or between the tied candidates (in the second contingency). The Committee proposed that the runoff be in the Senate. The Convention considered changing this to the House of Representatives or to Congress as a whole (voting by joint ballot), but it ended up putting the locus of the runoff in the House with each state delegation casting one vote. Finally, the proposal created the office of Vice President, to be awarded to the runner-up in the presidential selection process.” (Miller 2011, 3–4). The two vote provision was necessary because at the time, states rights and popular sovereignty were very important concepts and the people thought of themselves as New Yorkers or Virginians and not Americans as a whole. With the ability to cast two votes, electors could vote for a candidate from their state if there was one, and vote for someone who would do a great job with running the country. The creation of the office of the vice president was necessary because the vice president could take part of the stress of running the country and help the president, and at the time it made sense for the person with the second most votes to take the role of vice president. “The 12th Amendment, passed in 1804, formally separated the two offices, and the practice of presidential candidates choosing their running mates gradually evolved” (Steiden, 2012). “The original Electoral College established an extended sequential choice process: each state legislature would choose how their state’s electors were to be appointed; electors would be appointed accordingly; the electors would cast their votes; the electoral votes would be submitted to and counted by Congress; and a President would be selected on the basis of these electoral votes or, in the two contingencies, the House would make the final choice” (Miller 2011, 4). Now this all seems rather complicated, but every 4 years, our president is elected this way.
Usually on Election Day, the people and the delegates of the Electoral College vote for the same person. As I stated earlier, there have only been 5 instances in United States history where the outcomes of the popular vote and the electoral vote differed. The first discrepancy was during the election of 1824, but the election was decided by the House of Representatives due to the lack of a majority in the Electoral College. Even though Andrew Jackson had won the popular vote, he only had a plurality in the Electoral College where he needed a majority. Due to some shadiness, Jackson lost the election to John Quincy Adams. The second discrepancy was during the election of 1876 where Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote and Rutherford B. Hayes won the majority in the Electoral College by 1 vote. “This situation, in which the electoral vote winner is not the same as the popular vote winner, is known as a referendum paradox” (Barthelemy, Martin, and Matheiu 2014, 112). The remaining 3 discrepancies are also referendum paradoxes and they were in 1888 where Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost by an electoral landslide to Benjamin Harrison, 2000 where Al Gore won the popular vote but lost by 5 electoral delegates to George W. Bush, and lastly in 2016 where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost by an electoral landslide to Donald Trump.
The electoral system gives rise to campaign strategy. Due to party ideologies and population, states are divided into Democrat, Republican, and swing states. Republican states will reliably vote Republican and Democrat states will reliably vote Democrat. The swing states are states where the majority ideology can swing from Democrat to Republican. Usually the Democratic and the Republican candidates will win the states with their respective ideologies, and then it goes down to spending millions on campaign ads in the swing states. “One can divide all the 50 states and D.C. into three sets of places awarding electoral votes, and the team of a presidential candidate should make a division of the places both for the candidate and for all of those competitors in the race who have real chances to win in the Electoral College. The first set, A1, is formed by the places in each of which the candidate can be sure to win all the electoral votes. The second set, A2, is formed by the places in each of which the candidate has no chance of winning the electoral votes, since his competitors consider the places from this set to belong to their sets A1. The third set, A3, is formed by the places in each of which the candidate can eventually win by successfully competing with the opponents in the race; these places are often called toss-up ones” (Belenky 2013, 67). Based on this scheme of state sets, candidates can focus their campaigns on the must win states that both of them could win.
“In the 2000 presidential race for example, Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, where he served as congressman and senator for 16 years. Had he won Tennessee’s 11 electoral votes, he would have obtained 277 electoral votes, seven more than the required 270, winning the presidency even without the contested popular votes in Florida” (Al Jazeera America, 2016). If he had used more resources and campaigned harder in his own state, which was a must win, he would have won the election. In the 2016 race, it was predicted that Hillary Clinton would have won by a landslide. Clinton and her campaign team underestimated Trump and they were trumped by 74 electoral votes. Trump, who was never in politics, campaigned harder than Clinton and spent more time on the campaign trail. If Clinton had put in more effort, the odds may have turned to her favor.
The 2016 race for the presidency was unlike anything that people had seen before. The outcome of the election was even more surprising when Donald Trump actually won. He was chosen by the Electoral College simply because he won a majority in most states and all his small victories added up when he won with a 74 vote lead. The writing of this paper was inspired by this election, and I have thoroughly explained what the Electoral College is, why it was created, how it works, and how it’s influenced elections.
· Al Jazeera America “Electoral College: How does it work?”, 2016.
· Barthelemy, Fabrice. Martin, Matheiu. Piggins, Ashley. “The architecture of the Electoral College, the House size effect, and the referendum paradox”, 2014.
· Belenky, Alexander S. “Who Will Be the Next President: A Guide to the U.S. Presidential Election System”, 2013.
· Miller, Nicholas R. “Why the Electoral College is good for political science (and public choice), 2011.
· Steiden, Bill “What is the Electoral College? Why was it Formed? What Can Happen? Could This Happen Again? Why keep the Electoral College? How are the Electors Chosen? How does it Work? How the Electoral College Works”, 2012.
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