Who Are You Voting For?: A Look at the Electoral College

When you fill in the box next to a candidate for president, that person gets your vote. Right?

Actually, an elite insider group — hand picked by political parties — will technically elect the next president of the United States. They’re called the Electoral College, and while there are about 186 million eligible voters in the United States, the Electoral College is composed of just 538 members. When you vote for president, your vote, along with all the other votes in your state, make up what’s known as the popular vote. Each state’s popular vote determines how its Electoral College members will vote. When you vote for a candidate, you’re also voting for your elector, whose name may or may not appear on the ballot.


Total number of Electoral College votes: 538

Number of electoral votes needed to win a U.S.
presidential election: 270

Number of U.S. presidential elections in which no candidate received over 50 percent of the national popular vote: 15

Number of U.S. presidential elections in which the candidate who received the most popular votes was not elected to office: 4

Number of times Bill Clinton did not receive over 50 percent of the national popular vote when running for president: 2

Each state gets at least three electoral votes: one for each senator and one for each U.S. representative. The bigger a state’s population, the more representatives it has; the more representatives it has, the more electoral votes it gets. For example, California has a whopping 55 electoral votes: two for its senators and 53 for its representatives. Some states (Delaware, Wyoming and Alaska, for example) have just three electoral votes. The District of Columbia, while not technically a state, gets three electoral votes. A state’s number of representatives depends on its number of districts; its representatives, and its electors, can change due to districting or new census figures.

After the popular vote has been cast on Election Day, the members of the Electoral College meet in their respective state capitals to cast their votes for president and vice president. To prevent electors from simply voting for the candidates from their home state, each elector must cast at least one vote for a person from outside their state. This is why in 2000, Vice President Dick Cheney changed his residence from Texas to Wyoming: Electors couldn’t have voted for both Bush and Cheney if they had both been from Texas.

The Electoral College was written into the Constitution because the founders wanted a method of selecting president that would take all votes into account — this was at a time when the United States was made up of just 4 million people, who were separated by thousands of miles up and down the Atlantic seaboard with minimal transportation and communication channels to connect them. Early leaders were afraid that if the presidential election were decided by popular vote only, Americans in remote and less populated areas wouldn’t be heard; candidates would work hardest to court the votes in the most populous area, and leave too many voters behind.

Does this mean some candidates might not get more than 50 percent of the popular vote but still end up being elected president? Sure — this has happened 15 times, and even happened to Bill Clinton (twice) and, as we all know, to George W. Bush. And in four elections in U.S. history, the candidate who led the popular vote was not elected president by the Electoral College, beginning with John Quincy Adams in 1824 (he became president when the election was decided by the House of Representatives) and ending with Al Gore in 2000.

Wait a sec. Shouldn’t the popular vote determine who’s president? Well, keep in mind that we have profoundly low voter turnout — 51 percent in 2000 and 49 percent in 1996. Would a system that relied on the popular vote, not on the Electoral College, really reflect the will of all the people? Or could throwing out the Electoral College increase voter turnout by giving more people a reason to make their voices heard?

Lots of activists — particularly those working for third-party candidates and progressive causes — say yes. They say the Electoral College actually punishes minority interests in a serious way: by re- enforcing a two-party system. It’s extremely unlikely that a third-party candidate will ever garner a majority of electoral votes unless that candidate can win a majority of popular votes in many different populous states — thus the old line that supporting a third-party candidate is the same as throwing away your vote. No wonder people feel discouraged.
Critics say those third-party votes should be counted. Other countries have devised systems to support third-party votes: Ireland and Australia, for example, use an instant runoff system that allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference so that an Independent voter can indicate a first and second choice (no more “splitting the liberal vote”).

Do you think it’s time to take another look at the Electoral College? If so, check out our resource page for more info on election reform.

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