The Knowledge on the College : Electoral College – The Process and Purpose

By Cendri Johnson

Many of us have been hearing about how awful the Electoral College is because it allowed Trump to win the election. And many are quick to jump on that bandwagon.
But how well do you actually understand the system that is the Electoral College? Here is breakdown of this key factor of the election system.

The Common Misconceptions

Myth: The electoral college is comprised of votes that automatically go to whichever candidate wins each state during the general election.
Fact: The Electoral College is actually a group of people called “electors,” many of whom are able to choose which candidate they vote for.

Myth: The electors always have to adhere to the wishes of the people, or the electors are always completely autonomous to the wishes of the people.
Fact: In 21 states, electors can vote for whoever they want to, regardless of the people’s choice, even though the vast majority of the time the electors vote with their party. In 29 states and the District of Columbia, however, electors are required to cast their ballots in accordance with the popular vote. These electors can be bound by state law or pledges to their political parties.

Myth: We, the people, elect the Electoral College.
Fact: When we vote on election day we are able to choose which panel of electors (Democrat or Republican) represents us in the Electoral College, but the actual makeup of people on these panels is exclusively determined by the political parties of each state. We have no control over who our electors actually are.

Myth: The Electoral College has already voted.
Fact: This year, the Electoral College will vote on Dec. 19, 2016.

Myth: Electoral votes are evenly distributed between each state in the U.S. based on population.
Fact: The way it works out is that the population-to-electoral vote ratio is greater in some states than in others because the electoral votes are not allocated only based on population, but rather the combined number of senators and representatives for each state.

Myth: All states operate on the winner-take-all system for electoral votes.
Fact: Two states, Maine and Nebraska, actually have a proportional system where some electors can be Democratic while others can be Republican. In these states, the number of electors chosen from each party is dependent on how many popular votes each party receives and together they will represent their state in the Electoral College.

Myth: The electors can be anyone.
Fact: There aren’t specific criteria for being an elector, but these people are usually loyal party members with many years of experience, and good rap sheets. Additionally, according to Article Two of the U.S. Constitution, electors cannot be a member of Congress or hold any high-ranking office in the U.S. government of “trust or profit.”

The Purpose

The Electoral College was originally advocated for and established by the Founding Fathers, particularly Alexander Hamilton. This system was meant to protect smaller states’ voices from being completely drowned out by those of the larger states. If presidential elections were to be run on a one-person, one-vote basis, then the few states with the largest populations could have complete control over the election outcome.

They then took it a step further by establishing real people as electors rather than just votes in order to create a safeguard against the naivete and gullibility of the common people. The Founding Fathers worried that the common people of the republic could be too easily swayed by politicians and ideas they may not fully understand, which could lead to some terrible decisions that could come back to hurt the country later on.

Consequently, they came up with the idea of having a group of people versed in politics to act as a buffer between the citizens and the government, so that the Electoral College could see the flaw in the commoners’ thinking and essentially bail us out in case we did anything really dangerous. Some scoff at Hamilton’s lack of faith in the general citizenry, but it appears to many that the U.S. may have just proven that he and his Federalist Papers had a point.

The Process

The process goes like this: The sum of the number of senators and representatives that each state has is equal to the number of electoral votes they get. Each state has two senators, and a different number of representatives based on population size. For instance, Washington has twelve electoral votes since we have two senators and ten representatives.

Now the key here is that every state has at least two senators and one representative (and therefore three electoral votes), regardless of their population size. This can lead to less populated states being overrepresented by the Electoral College.

For example, a state with a smaller population, like North Dakota, may have one electoral vote for every 250,000 people, whereas a state with a higher population, like California, may have one electoral vote for every 700,000 people. In this regard, one person’s vote will have more influence on the presidential election if they live in North Dakota than it will if they live in California.

This is how a presidential candidate can win the popular vote but not the electoral vote.

Before each state votes for which candidate they want as president—almost always either the Democrat or the Republican candidate—-both political parties in each state choose a slate of potential electors from within that state’s party. When a party wins a state, those chosen by the party become that state’s electors.

This is true in every state except for Nebraska and Maine, which have proportional representation with their electors, so some Democratic and some Republican electors could both be sent on their behalf depending on how the popular vote goes.

Then, on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their ballots for president and vice president. Once one candidate has an absolute majority of the electoral votes (270 votes), then they are officially elected president.

The Variable

One key factor here is that the electors could vote against the public’s choice. We call these people ‘faithless electors.’ By choosing to vote against the popular vote, they run the risk of being replaced or punished by their political party, and sometimes they’ll even end up facing criminal charges from the state. Consequently, very, very, very rarely does any elector ever deviate from the public’s choice, and to date, there have never been enough faithless electors to impact the outcome of the presidential election. Some believe that as a whole, the system of penalizing the electors for voting against the public effectively negates the point of having the Electoral College be real people in the first place.

Essentially, while some of the population may be clinging to the hope that the Electoral College will bail them out this time, the fact of the matter is that while there is a chance that Donald Trump will not be elected, the odds are slim at best.