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United States Electoral College

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Last night, Barack Obama won the popular vote by a margin of 52% to 46% and the electoral vote by 364 to 173. So, basically a six percent popular vote victory translates into a two-to-one Electoral College drubbing... it’s as sound as it was when that shipload of mentally defective orangutans washed ashore and designed it.
Jon Stewart
The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.
—Donald J. Trump, November 6, 2012.[note 1] (winner of the electoral college but not the popular vote in 2016)[1]

The United States Electoral College consists of 538 people who are selected every 4 years to elect the President of the United States. Unlike most US colleges, it is known neither for academic excellence nor for athletic prowess. They would probably lose a football tournament against the Ivy League and a quiz against Notre Dame.

The 538 comes from the election of electors from each state, and the District of Columbia, equal to their representation in Congress (two Senators each, plus one or more Representatives; DC gets three).

The Electors have to cast their votes based on the people that they are representing. One could argue that the Electors serve no real purpose and under most conditions they would be right. The Electors themselves are just bodies to cast the apportioned votes. However, under some conditions the electors could change their votes and especially during particularly close elections this could affect the outcome.

Each state has the same number of electors as their representation in Congress, so the minimum is 3, and currently the state with the most is California, with 55. This is allowed to happen because there are some banjo-pluckers out there who think of it as "Californians deciding the election." In reality, over an eighth of the country's population lives here. If anything Californians (as well as Texans, New Yorkers, or Floridians) deserve a bigger say in the election than the coal miners crying and stamping their feet about a world that's left them in the dust.

It is also possible for electors to cast their vote for a different candidate than the state's voters sent them to vote for. These are called faithless electors, and have never been punished.[note 2] This has happened, but only rarely, and never in sufficient numbers to change the outcome of an election.

Pros and cons[edit]

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote by approximately 500,000 votes. However, due to the Electoral College, the person with fewer votes won — George W. Bush.

The main argument behind the use of the Electoral College is that it prevents the development of factions. In a pure democracy 51 percent of the voters could control the other 49 percent, but in the Electoral College system, the minority still has a strong voice. Another reason often given in the US is that it equalizes the power between states to some degree. If elections were just about winning a popular vote, a candidate could run a campaign appealing only to a handful of the most populated states. With the electoral college system a much larger block of states must be won — however, with the first past the post system in place in most states, only a handful of important states are currently considered in play anyway.

Note how somebody could win the popular vote, and still lose the electoral vote.

Another problem is the severe imbalance between the less populated states and the densely populated states. Wyoming has a population of 515,004 [2] and 3 electoral votes,[3] whereas California has a population of 36,457,549[4]and 55 electoral votes[3] This amounts to one electoral vote for every 171,668 people in Wyoming compared to one for every 662,865 in California. Essentially, a Wyoming voter is valued by the electoral college at 3.8 times more than a California voter (662,865 ÷ 171.668).

What if no majority is reached?[edit]

The Constitution specifically states a candidate for President or Vice President must receive a majority of the electoral votes to win (currently 270). If there is a tie (or a third or fourth party siphons off enough votes) then the process gets even less democratic, since Congress would be in charge of electing the president. Should this happen, the House of Representatives would be responsible for electing the President and the Senate would be in charge of picking the Vice President, from the top three electoral college vote getters. However, not all Congresscritters and Senators can vote, since voting would be on a one state-one vote basis, hence the winner would need to get 26 votes. The constitution is silent on the possibility of a 25-25 tie or a 24-24-2 tie or any other non-majority outcome. That means that each state delegation would have to work this out on their own, and while a simple majority would be enough in a state that has a majority of one party or the other, it could present a problem in states that are evenly split - the constitution is again silent on this issue. This has happened twice before in American history, in 1800 (see below for details) and in 1824 (luckily these have been the only two times). The 1824 election is particularly notable as it has been labeled the "corrupt bargain." That year, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and William Harris Crawford all ran. Jackson, Adams, and Crawford were the top three vote getters, Jackson had won a plurality of the electoral and popular votes and hoped that Congress would elect him; however, Adams won. Jackson supporters alleged that Clay instructed those states' votes which he controlled to vote for Adams, in exchange for Adams making him Secretary of State.

Should no decision in Congress be reached on both the Presidential and Vice Presidential elections by inauguration day the Speaker of the House would get sworn in.

Does it have to be this way?[edit]

The Constitution itself is silent about the details of the electors. All it says is that state legislatures are in charge of determining how to pick the electors, not who the electors are (other than they cannot currently hold any elected office), nor how they have to vote.

Prior to the 1860s many states had their legislatures pick their state's slate of electors, and in theory a state could hold a lottery, auction, or find some other means of deciding. Fortunately, all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) have gone the democracy route. Unfortunately, the Constitution also does not specify which type of democracy to use, and most states have moved towards a winner-takes-all system, in an arms race with each other to give their legislators' party an edge in the national election.[5][6] In these states, a candidate who wins a higher percentage of the citizen's votes in that state gets 100% of the state's electoral votes. They don't even need to get more than 50%--a mere plurality will suffice, as happened in 2016 when Donald Trump won key swing states with less than 50% of the vote. These states included Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.[7]

Only Nebraska and Maine have legal provisions allowing for the electors to be determined by something other than statewide winner takes all (which happened in Nebraska in 2008, when Barack Obama actually won one of the state's electoral votes by winning one of the Congressional districts), (and in Maine in 2016 when Donald Trump actually won one of the state's electoral votes by winning one of the Congressional districts). Other states could also follow this model, which could make the Electoral College somewhat more democratic, especially in swing states, but it's difficult to conceive of a world in which state politicians would willingly give the opposing party an advantage in the national election. And the model as adopted by Nebraska and Maine is not exactly the be all end all either, as the allocation is not by statewide popular vote, but based on pluralities in Congressional Districts. Those in turn are not perfect indicators of the actual will of the people either.

A more realistic possibility is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,Wikipedia which cleverly games the system such that the "safe states" gang up on the swing states and give 100% of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, making the electoral college obsolete without actually getting rid of it. So far, it's been signed by about half of the states required for it take effect. Unfortunately, red states have thus far not signed on in any appreciable number, nor have (for obvious reasons) swing states.

Even more nefarious schemes[edit]

You could get less than one-fourth of the vote and still win.

As the constitution explicitly gives the right to pick electors (and the right to make the rules for picking them) to the states, there is nothing stopping a state voting for one party in Presidential elections with a legislature dominated by the other party from adopting some rule for picking electors strongly benefiting that party. While this might seem absurd, Gerrymandering has ensured state legislatures that look nothing like the popular vote and well into the 1990s some states in the South voted Democratic on the state level despite being solidly red on the presidential level. Now the old antebellum method of having the legislature pick electors would probably not fly, but imagine a blue Texas legislature making Texas's electors bound to the statewide popular proportional vote [note 3] or a red New York state legislature gerrymandering districts and then allocating the electors by district that somehow produces more red electors than blue electors even if the Democrat won New York state 60:40. The most nefarious thing about that is that states would be perfectly justified passing such laws citing both their constitutional right to do so and touting it as attempts to make the process "more democratic" or "more representative". For almost any election that wasn't a total rout (and even for some routs), you can fiddle with the allocation methods enough to produce a President unlike the one the current system produced. And even the current system five times put someone into the White House who won fewer votes than the candidate who did not get sworn in in March or - two times - in January.


The first contested US presidential election, where Adams beat Jefferson in 1796.

The term "Electoral College" was not written into law until 1845, but was spelled out in the Constitution under Article II, Section 1, Clause 2:

Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

The Electoral College had its only revision in 1804 with the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, which was passed in response to the botched election of 1800. Prior to its passage, electors were given two votes, both for President: the candidate with the highest vote total would be President, while the second highest would be Vice President. In 1796 John Adams of the Federalist Party won the most votes and Thomas Jefferson came in second. The result was a President and Vice President who hated each other. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson's party, the Democratic-Republicans, wanted Jefferson to get the most votes and Aaron Burr to get the second most. However, due to some irregularities during the election, Jefferson and Burr tied, throwing the election to the House of Representatives (which determines the winner in the case of a tie on a one state, one vote basis). Adams controlled the votes of enough states to prevent a majority. Thanks to some political wheeling and dealing (and the fact that Adams saw Jefferson as the lesser of two evils) the election went to Jefferson. The states ratified the Twelfth Amendment as a consequence of this election. This changed the electoral college so that electors had one vote for President and one vote for Vice President, making them separate elections.

The absolute clusterfuck that was the 1824 Electoral College. No candidate won a majority, so the House had to decide. Andrew Jackson lost despite getting a plurality of electoral and popular votes.[8]

Of all the Founding Fathers, the one most closely linked to this method of election is James Madison. In the Federalist Papers No. 10 Madison spells out the dangers of factions and imparting too much power to a simple majority. In the Federalist Papers No. 39, he further developed the idea in that the federal executive should be elected in a manner that combines the state and federal system. He argued that the Constitution was designed to be a mixture of federal (state-based) and national (population-based) government. The Congress would have two houses, one federal and one national in character, while the President would be elected by a mixture of the two modes, giving some electoral power to the states and some to the people in general.

Moreover, it can be argued that the system was set in place because a poor farmer in Georgia would not be able to know enough about prominent people in Massachusetts, or even Virginia, to vote for them. Therefore, local people vote for a local representative, who is then entrusted with the vote. The same idea could have been achieved by having Congress select the President, but this would have then made the President beholden to the Congress, rather than to the people at large.

Given that other countries that elect the President in similar roundabout ways (the German president is elected by a special body composed of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of delegates named by the state parliaments for instance) have rather weak Presidents and given that the US constitution says precious little about what each branch can and can't do, it might be a possible interpretation that the current "executive presidency" with its broad powers was never what the founders had in mind. The US is currently the only country on earth to have a non-figurehead President who is not directly elected by the people. If one compares the amount of "presidenting" Millard Fillmore or Grover Cleveland did to that of Barack Obama or George W. Bush (who both sent US troops into war without so much as a vote in Congress), the conclusion that a weak presidency has evolved into a much stronger one and the electoral college is the only remnant of the weak presidency does not sound implausible. However, the seemingly strong presidencies of Jefferson and Washington right at the beginning of US history seem to fly in the face of this, but one shouldn't forget that both were rather charismatic figures who commanded a huge following both with elected officials and "ordinary folk" and they might not have needed any actual formal powers to get their will.


The Electoral College also has the effect of making the intricacies of state borders matter to a large extent. For example, if Escambia County, Florida, home of the city of Pensacola, was part of Alabama instead, then Al Gore, and not George Bush, and have won Florida, and with it, the election. tools exist that allow people to experiment with changes to state borders and how they would have impacted the results of Presidential Elections.

See also[edit]


  1. when Barack Obama won both the electoral college and the popular vote
  2. This is despite the fact that several states have laws making this illegal. See the other wikiWikipedia for more.
  3. Which even in Texas and even in a landslide won't be much worse than 70:30 and deliver a nice handful of electors to the Democrat which (s)he would otherwise never get