What is The Electoral College?
Description: the electoral college is a body of electors from the 50 states formed every four years for the sole purpose of deciding the presidential (and vice-presidential) election, with the number of electors allocated to each state equal to the number of members of congress (Representatives and senators) from that state. there are 435 members of the house of Representatives and 100 senators from the 50 states, together with three electors added for Washington DC, gives 538 total electors. to be elected, a president needs to win a majority of 270 Electoral College votes.
Let us look at the origin and allocation among the states of the figure of 538 Electoral College votes. There are a fixed total number of members of the house of Representatives, 435; they are allocated among the states according to the principle of proportional Representation, i.e., according to their population, except that every state, even those with a very low population, has at least one Representative. the 435 Representatives are reapportioned among the states every 10 years, by a national census taken in years corresponding to a number ending in zero. in a year such as 2020, which includes both the census and a presidential election, changes in allocation of members of the house of Representatives as a result of the census will not be taken into account for the 2020 election.
the 538 electoral college votes include 100 electors, or 2 electors for every state, corresponding to each state’s 2 senators, irrespective of population: the Electoral College does not reflect a Proportional Representation of the us population. As a result, each popular vote in a low-population state, like for example Wyoming which has 3 electors representing its population of 436,000 persons of voting age, will have a much greater impact, in terms of the electoral college, than a popular vote in a high-population state like California: to be specific, 100,000 votes for a presidential candidate in Wyoming has more than three times the impact, in terms of the electoral college, than 100,000 votes in the most populous states. the electoral college system biases the us presidential election in favor of rural, low-population states, a bias that is currently advantageous to the Republican presidential candidate.
As you can notice in chapter 1 of my book Rendez-Vous with America, this structure, combined with “winner take all” elections in the fifty states, means that a presidential candidate will win the election by receiving 270 electoral college votes, even while receiving less popular votes than the opponent, as was the case for the 2016 election, when trump won the election while losing the popular vote (the same thing happened with george w. Bush’s election in 2000).
How did The Electoral College come about?
Origin: this system isn’t democratic, why didn’t the framers of the constitution start with a national election system? we can suggest two answers to this question:
- We are so used to thinking of the united states as a single country, we tend to forget that the territory that became the united states was initially comprised of a number of quite autonomous states, with legislatures (and often governors) of each state exercising all the power in that territory. Although they came together to create a federation of states, each state jealously guarded its own rights, giving up only certain powers to the federal structure (it is clearly written in the Constitution that all powers that are not specifically granted to the federal government in the constitution are to remain with the states).
- In fact, the founding fathers, so highly admired in the us today for creating a democratic country, were highly suspicious of democratic, popular elections, fearful of the power of the people and wary of concentration of what they considered would be excessive power in the hands of the few highly populated states. it is likely that the very idea of a national popular election for president never even entered the minds of the framers of the constitution. As a result, they nearly decided to have the president simply elected by the federal house of Representatives, but to reconcile a balance between state and federal interest, and to include a dose of democracy, they invented the electoral college system.
But in the constitution, it is the states that each independently had (and still have) the right to decide how they choose their electors, and in the formulation in the constitution, the electors are free to decide the candidate they will give their vote to on the basis of their independent judgment. the founders expected that electors from each state would favor a candidate from their own state, that there would be no natural majority candidate, and in what they thought would be the usual case, they provided in the absence of an electoral college majority, for the president to be chosen by the house of Representatives.