Patricia A. O'Malley

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How Does the Electoral College Work?
And Why Don’t We Get Rid of It?
December 8, 2012


Legally, the Electoral College chooses our president, but our votes DO control that result. And until we can remove the marketing geeks from the election process, we do still need the Electoral College.

2012 Election Results
As usual on election night, news reporters announced each state’s vote totals as the polls closed and kept a running tally of electoral votes. Incumbent President Barack Obama won re-election by 4,602,212 popular votes and earned 332 Electoral College votes. Former Gov. Mitt Romney won 206 electoral votes. Other candidates won 2,227,841 popular and zero electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the election. But what’s the point of having the Electoral College?

Electoral College History
Our founders were afraid to permit the uninformed and uneducated public to elect the president and vice president, but didn’t want to give that much power to Congress. The Electoral College was their compromise. The constitution allots each state the same number of electors as it has total members of Congress. There are 435 House of Representatives members and 100 senators. The 23rd amendment allots three electors to the District of Columbia, just as though it was a state, so there are 538 total electors.

It is possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and lose the election, depending on how the states vote. That happened four times in our history. They are: 1824: John Quincy Adams, 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes, 1888 Benjamin Harrison, and 2000: George W. Bush.

Electoral College Process
The Electoral College meets on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. It met for the 57th time on December 17, but not all in one place. The members meet in their respective state capitals, at noon on that day. Some states permit the public to watch the process, others don’t. The Constitution’s 12th amendment specifies the voting process. However, state laws have effectively changed the way the college works, without having to go through the difficult process of amending the constitution.

The Constitution does not specify how we are to choose the electors. Each state has created its own method. In most states, the political parties choose their electors long before Election Day. They’re usually party officials, state or local government officials, or influential party members. The party whose candidate wins the popular vote sends its electors to participate in the Electoral College. The electors chosen by the other parties do not participate.

Some states require specific votes from electors, others don’t. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia require their Electoral College members to vote for the candidate who won the state’s popular vote. That’s called the “winner takes all” system. Maine and Nebraska have a “district system” in which two votes are given to the candidate who won the state’s total vote, and the remaining votes are distributed to the candidate who won each Congressional district. In the remaining 24 states, electors are expected, but not required, to vote for the candidate to whom they have pledged. Sometimes, despite the law, electors vote for a different candidate. They are called “faithless electors” and can face a fine and lose their positions as electors. It rarely happens and has never affected an election.

The electors sign the voting certificates and send them to Washington, DC. The vice president, in his capacity as president of the senate, collects, opens, reads, tallies, and reports the results in a joint session of Congress. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to perform that duty on January 6, 2013, but Congress might change the schedule, since that’s a Sunday. Then Barack Obama will be officially confirmed for his second term.  

If there is a tie in the Electoral College vote, then the U.S. House of Representatives votes to determine the next president. The constitution gives very specific detail for those procedures. That has happened twice, in 1801 for Thomas Jefferson and in 1825 for John Quincy Adams.

Changing the System
The college is still controversial. It seems to be outdated and unnecessary, since public education and the mass media have allegedly made us better informed than ever before. Yet it allows all of the states to play a part in the election. Without the college, campaign marketing managers would convince candidates to focus only on the larger states with more population, and ignore the small states. This way, the candidates have to campaign throughout the country, address a larger variety of issues, and face more of the voters.

Americans grumble about the college during and after every presidential election. People question its procedures, fairness, and whether it’s necessary. But changing the system requires a Constitutional amendment, and that’s not an easy process.

In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore were reached an electoral tie, with Florida’s votes still being counted. There were difficulties in counting many ballots, and challenges on both sides. Then the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Florida state officials to stop counting the ballots, thereby awarding all of the state’s electors to George W. Bush. They claimed that it was taking “too long”. It was not necessary, since the constitution also contains provisions for what happens when the election is not completed by Inauguration Day. There is no provision in the Constitution for the Court’s act, and it is illegal.

Of course, we can improve the Electoral College. However if we abolish it, we must find a way to make sure that we don’t overlook the small states, their voters, and their interests.  

For more information
Read the U.S. Constitution
Electoral College FAQs
Learn More About the Electoral College
Number of Electors per state
Go to your state’s Department of State website to see the electors’ names

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Patricia A. O'Malley
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