The Purpose of the Electoral College
The Electoral College, unlike what many people think of it, is not actually a location, but a political process.
The founding fathers created it as a way of compromising between two different electoral methods: 1) the election of a president by a vote in Congress and 2) by a popular vote from citizens of the nation.
The Electoral College, consisting of 538 electors nominated by their respective political parties, gives voting leverage to smaller states, to ensure that every region has a chance of influencing the outcome of an election.
If the Electoral College didn’t exist, heavily populated states like New York and California would have a disproportionate influence on the outcome of the presidential election every four years – leaving the smaller states with no reason to be a part of the union.
In other words, the adoption of the Electoral College was to ensure that small states had a voice, so their votes mattered.
What is the Electoral College?
The mechanism through which voters elect their Vice President and President tends to be a bit confusing, but there is a method to the madness.
The Electoral College process is when the 538 electors meet and vote for the President and the Vice President. 538 isn’t just an arbitrary number (1).
The number 538 is the sum of the nation’s 435 Representatives in Congress, 100 Senators, in addition to the 3 electors in the District of Columbia (1).
Due to the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution, the District of Columbia received 3 electors and is treated as its own state.
A presidential candidate needs a majority of the 270 electoral votes to win.
Each state’s electoral votes are equal to the number of its members in the Congressional delegation.
Washington has 10 representatives in Congress and two senators. There is one electoral vote for every representative and Senator, therefore, 12 electoral votes in total.
California has 53 representatives in Congress, and two senators, so it has 55 electoral votes in total.
There is some confusion as to how the political process works, as most people believe that when they’re voting for a candidate, they’re voting for that person, specifically.
However, when a vote for the president is cast, a voter is actually determining which Electors will represent their state in December’s Electoral College process after the presidential election.
Typically, states have a “winner-take-all” system, where the candidate receives the majority of votes, and all of the electors associated with that candidate are now representatives of the state during the Electoral College process.
When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, he won a majority of the popular vote in Texas, so he received 38 electoral votes.
When the Electors met a month later, every Republican Elector associated with Trump’s campaign in the state of Texas then voted for him in the Electoral College process in the following December.
But there are some exceptions to this rule, notably, Maine and Nebraska.
When citizens cast their vote, the governor of the state creates what’s called a “Certificate of Ascertainment.” This is where candidates who ran for the President in that state are listed along with the names of their electors (2).
This certificate shows who won the majority, and the victorious electors represent the state at the meeting of the electors in December of the election year.
Each state sends its Certificates of Ascertainments to Congress, as well as the National Archives, to become a part of the official records (2).
When and where does it take place?
The electors meet on the first Monday after the Second Wednesday in December following the presidential election (2).
They cast their ballots for the president and the vice president on two separate ballots, recording them on what’s called a “Certificate of Vote (2).”
On the 6th of January in the following year, officials count each state’s electoral votes in a joint session of Congress. Members of the House of Representatives meet and count the number of the electoral votes officially (2).
Both the president and the vice president of the Senate watch over the counting process and then the president of the Senate announces the results, determining who is now the president and vice president of the United States.
The President-Elect is sworn in as President of the United States on the 20th of January, taking the oath of office, amid former presidents, vice-presidents, senate members, and other politicians and administrators (2).
How do political parties select their Electors?
As for how political parties choose their Elector, this typically happens at their respective state conventions. In many cases, the party’s central committee chooses the nominee.
These individuals are usually state-elected officials, party leaders, or people who are tied to the presidential candidates.
Each candidate running for the Presidency has their own group of electors, chosen by their political party. However, individual states have their own way of selecting electors and also determining their responsibilities (2).
Do Electors have to vote for their Party’s Candidate?
Following the election of the current president, Donald Trump, many people messaged their respective state’s electors, pleading with them to not vote for Trump in the electoral college (4).
In fact, they even signed a petition, with over 2 million signatures (4).
However, there are a few reasons for why Electors choose to represent their party, regardless of what political pundits demand of them.
In truth, Federal election laws and the constitution don’t compel electors to vote for their party’s candidates.
However, 27 states have laws which require electors to vote for their party’s candidate if he/she gets a majority of the state’s popular vote.
In the other 24 states, electors don’t have to vote for their party’s candidate, but it’s a common practice to do so due to party loyalty.
Is it possible to lose the popular vote but win in the Electoral College?
This has happened twice in recent memory, including in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore, as well as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016 (1).
When this occurs, the side that loses typically calls for changes to the electoral system, claiming that the Electoral College isn’t democratic, which it isn’t.
The United States is a constitutional republic, and not a democracy, although the founding fathers created the system using democratic principles.
Are there qualifications to be an Elector?
There are few rules relating to the qualifications of Electors. Article II, section 1, clause 2, states that neither a Senator, a Representative, or an individual holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be an Elector (2).
Additionally, the 14th Amendment states that state officials who have rebelled against the United States government, given aid, or helped its enemies in any way are barred from serving as an Elector (2).
As noted earlier, each state has a Certificate of Ascertainment confirming the names of the individuals appointed as an Elector, and such a certificate is usually enough to establish the Elector’s legitimacy and qualifications (2).
What rules do Electors have to abide by?
As I mentioned earlier, Electors don’t have to vote in accordance with the popular votes of their States. But there are some states, however, that require Electors to vote along party lines.
Neither the US Supreme Court nor the Constitution demands that Electors be completely free (2).
However, in order for the Elector to receive a nomination, they either pledge an allegiance to vote for their political party or in relation to the popular vote by state law (2).
In other words, political parties, when nominating an Elector, demand that their Elector vote for them, and they promise to do so to receive the position.
Additionally, some states penalize what the system calls “faithless Electors,” individuals who don’t vote in accordance with their previous pledge to vote for their candidate (2).
The government might subject a transgressive Elector to either a fine or spoiling their vote and then replacing them with someone else (2).
Today, Electors almost never vote against the popular vote or against their party interests, because the political party selects their Elector based on loyalty, and these individuals often hold a position within the political party.
Throughout history, approximately 99% of Electors have voted as pledged (2).
Why is the Electoral College So Important For The US Political System?
The founding fathers invented a system meant to do two things: protect the interests of democracy while at the same time, protecting the rights of minority states (3).
In other words, the Electoral College protects the interests of smaller populations.
Historically, dictatorships have used a majority vote to infringe on the rights of smaller groups.
To clarify, if the people elect a government based on the popular vote, minorities don’t have as much representation, simply because there aren’t as many of them.
For the sake of clarification, the Electoral College, like mentioned at the beginning of the article, ensures that a state without as many people in it has a chance at influencing the outcome of an election in their favor.
Otherwise, larger states like California and New York would dominate the political system purely based on their larger population, thus a larger proportion of votes.
For a candidate to become the president, they don’t need to receive a majority of the votes, but instead, a larger share of the electoral votes.
If the presidency was based purely on the popular vote, each state would have different ways of increasing their chance of deciding the election. For example, a state could lower the voting age to 17 or 16, just to get their numbers up (3).
Another unintended consequence of a popular vote would be politicians campaigning in the biggest cities within the largest states, and ignoring the smaller regions altogether. Politicians would cater, primarily, to the interests of the larger regions.
The Electoral College system stops candidates with a mere regional appeal from winning the election.
For example, if Bush won nearly all of the votes in his home state of Texas, and thus won the nationwide popular vote, this doesn’t mean that he had support across the entire country, only that he was popular in Texas.
During the election between Bush and Al Gore back in 2000, writes Cato.com, political pundits were calling for the Electors to vote for “what was right (3).”
This is a problem because, as noted earlier, Electors pledge allegiance to their political party, so if they did “vote their conscience,” they would be violating their pledge, as well as their loyalty to the party (3).
If an Elector who votes against his pledge ran for his position with an honest slogan, it would sound like, “Elect me as your nominee and I’ll just change my mind later and vote for whoever I want.”
The Electoral College exists for the same reason, for example, that we count the number of games won in the NHL in a Stanley Cup finals series, rather than the total number of goals scored.
If a team beat one team 10-0 in one game, and then the other time beat them 1-0 in the next three games, the team that won the first would win the Stanley Cup.
Obviously, this isn’t fair and not an accurate representation of who actually won.
The Federalist Papers And Thwarting Dictatorships
During the Napoleonic Era of French history, 1799 until 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte ruled the French people, who were constantly going through referendums which determined precisely how much authority Napolean had (5).
Usually, voters cast their ballots in the referendums through direct votes, viewing it as the most Democratic. However, every time Napolean won a vote, the people awarded him more and more power until he became an emperor over France (5).
Essentially, the French people democratically created a dictator, voting away their very own rights and freedoms.
Through the examination of previous democracies, the founding fathers understood that a tyranny of the majority, or mob rule, had disastrous consequences on the state.
In 1776 and to this day, the United States of America is a huge nation, spanning thousands of miles to the north and south. It’s diverse in religious faiths, traditions, culture, and geography (5)
At the time of Confederation, there were only 13 individual states, and each one had its own government.
The Founding fathers, however, feared Confederation of all the states under one central government (5).
The purpose of the Electoral College was to ensure that each state would have its own autonomous government, and the Federal Government wouldn’t be able to infringe on their liberties.
In the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, Madison argued that preventing contentious and controversial topics of the day from influencing particular election cycles was a necessity (5).
They also wrote that it was, as noted above, crucial to protect the interests of the minority against the interest of the majority.
Overlapping authority and differentiated electoral bases were meant to slow down the federal government and to force a compromise between the interests of the minority and the majority, that way the majority didn’t steam-roll the minority.
To thwart the power of the central government, the Federalist Papers argued that vesting authority in electoral bases, as well as through alternate timing of the elections, was crucial for preventing tyranny.
In theory, it was supposed to bring representatives into Congress with differing regional interests, in accordance with contemporary issues.
Usually, the largest protests are in the cities, and the interests of these groups shouldn’t overpower the interests of those outside urban centers.