Updated: Nov 22, 2020
By Lauren Zakari
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Most Americans find themselves wondering right around the presidential election season how exactly their votes get counted, with vague knowledge of some system called the Electoral College. This article will hopefully clear up some of the mystery of the process as well as shed light on alternatives to this system.
The first question that needs to be answered is “what is the Electoral College?” The answer is that the Electoral College is a group of 538 people across the country who cast their votes for president (hopefully) based on the popular vote of their state and determine who gets to be in the White House. You may be asking yourself now, “who are these people and how do I know they have my best interest at heart?”
Well, essentially all of the “electors” are chosen by the political parties of their specific states who meet and vote independently on who will be part of the EC (Electoral College). There is no specific criteria that needs to be met as most parties choose people who will benefit them. And to answer the latter part of the question, we don’t know that they are serving our best interest. There is no federal law that requires the electors to actually vote based on the popular vote, meaning that they can technically vote however they please. To that point, since the electors are voting based on popular vote, whoever wins the popular vote in that state gets all the electoral votes. Only Nebraska and Maine don’t follow this “all-or-nothing principle”.
The number 538 is based on the total number of representatives in the House and the Senate with an additional three electors for the District of Columbia. This means that it’s distributed based on population with bigger states like California and Texas getting many more delegates than states like Wyoming or Rhode Island. But this doesn’t mean that those bigger states have more pull in the election, and that’s exactly how the Founding Fathers wanted it to be.
While many like to say that the Founding Fathers were completely thoughtful and deliberate in their decisions when creating the United States, the reality is that many of our “sacred” traditions came in times of conflict and compromise. The EC is no different. The smaller states were afraid that the more populated states would dominate in politics and because the Fathers were simply trying to get their government together, they settled this dispute during the Great Compromise of 1787. In addition to this compromise, many of the Founding Fathers were anxious of the implications of direct democracy (as many of them were upper class and feared the lower class rebellion). And so it was settled that the Presidential election would be settled by the newly formed Electoral College. Something they failed to consider was the formation of political parties leading all the electors to vote on the party line, meaning that they would always be biased towards their favored party.
There are two main issues that emerge with the Electoral College: it gives excessive power to smaller, less populated states and makes voters feel disillusioned and unheard. For example, the population of California consists of roughly 39.5 million people while the population of Pennsylvania has roughly 12.8 million people. However, Pennsylvania has much more pull in deciding the President than California does. This is due the fact that Pennsylvania is considered a “swing state” which means that it is not guaranteed to support the same party from one election to the next. This happens in quite a few states, making them extremely crucial for determining the election outcome despite the fact that they may be tiny. Because of this uneven dynamic and the fact that there is a concept of “safe states” vs “swing states”, many voters are left feeling utterly powerless in their state, wishing they were somewhere else where they feel like their vote may count. This sentiment, among many other factors, leaves the US with one of the lowest voter turnouts anywhere in the world. In 2016, only 53% of people who were of voting age actually went out to vote. Furthermore, 2016 was the second time in 20 years where a President lost the popular vote and yet was still elected to office. Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by over 3 million votes but he won the Electoral College with 307 votes.
This begs the question: what other option is there? If we get rid of the Electoral College, what would we do instead? The options include electors by district, direct popular vote, ranked-choice voting, and the proportional method. The first option, electors by district, is actually somewhat in place in Nebraska and Maine with the system being that each congressional district that the candidate wins counts as one vote and the winner of the state-wide election gets an additional 2 votes.
This system helps ensure that every community is being represented and usually results in an outcome that more accurately reflects the popular opinion. The next option is direct popular vote. Many advocates of the Electoral College argue that if the President was elected via direct democracy, that smaller states wouldn’t be accurately represented, worrying that places like New York and California would have too much power. This argument falls flat when realized that it is not the land that is voting, but in fact the people. This method would give people a much greater say in the presidency, increasing the power of the vote for everyone across the political spectrum. The Founding Fathers were deliberately trying to suppress the pull of the common person as well as make it easier for smaller states, with much larger white populations to have a greater weight in elections. Ranked-choice voting is when the voter can choose candidates in order of preference. If the voter’s top candidate is eliminated, their vote isn’t thrown away, but given to their second choice instead. This can help avoid the “spoiler effect” which occurs in the all-or-nothing system when a less popular candidate with similar ideals to a majority candidate takes away from their vote decreasing their chances of winning.
We see this in the U.S. when people decide to vote third party instead of either Democrat or Republican, which many see as throwing a vote away since in our current system those minority parties never win. Moreover, advocates of ranked-choice voting argue that this would help to depolarize the country by allowing more centrist candidates a chance at taking office. It would also encourage voters to make a better effort to vote because many people abstain from voting due to the fact that they feel that neither candidate reflects their values.
Hopefully, this has helped give a better explanation as to how the Electoral College works and some alternatives to our current system. Even if it does seem hopeless when it’s all explained, voting is one of the most important things anyone can do. It helps create a culture where people have a say and though it may not seem like it, can make a difference in the kind of legislation being passed in this country. Vote in every election you can including primaries, midterms, and local elections. Even though this election season is done for now, make sure that you and your friends are all registered to vote.
Written by writer Lauren Zakari