When someone says the words “the United States Presidential Elections,” a myriad of thoughts come to mind. Many a time, passionate feelings are drawn up from pugnacious partisans. The months leading up to the election end up being the most politically charged of the last four years. For the general public, whether their interests lie in the candidates personally, or the issues at hand, polls show that a surprising majority of the public does not know how the election process truly works.
Why is this a big deal? In order to have more people go to the poll, we need an informed electorate. Voters need to understand what is the Electoral College? Why does it exist? Who really chooses our President? How does the popular vote matter?
On voting day, voters don’t vote for the President. They vote for a select group of “electors” who have declared their allegiance to a particular Presidential nominee. Yet, to add confusion to the process, many states list only the Presidential contenders on the ballot and not the electors. Cracks in this system have lead to some of the biggest presidential upsets in American history (more on this later). I believe that the Electoral College is, now more than ever, necessary to ensure a proper election. Here is a brief introduction to the what the Electoral College is and how it plays in to the Presidential election process.
What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is a voting system that was devised when our first Congress failed to elect a President on its own, in 1787. After direct voting was deemed way too chaotic, our Founding Fathers created the electoral system. This is how it works: once the Presidential contenders are decided, and after the main polls close for the people, a special group of electors called the Electoral College, from every state, meets in December to cast their votes for the President and the Vice President. The body is as large as the Senate and House combined, plus three representatives from DC. It is their 538 votes that truly matter, and the Electoral College originally intended for electors to pledge their allegiance more toward a party and not a candidate. This uniquely innovative process was a testament to America’s independence as a young country. However, like all things in government, it began to show flaws.
What’s wrong with it? Why do we even use it?
When it comes to voting, one of the most important tenets is accurate representation of the people. The big problem with the Electoral College is that the electors do not always reflect the popular vote, most famously in the Bush v. Gore election, where Gore secured 48% of the vote (Bush received 47%). This happened other times, too, such as in the case of Andrew Jackson v. John Quincy Adams election. However in this instance, Jackson won both categories, but the minimum votes for a majority in the Electoral College was not met. The decision went to Congress, who declared Adams the winner.
Situations like these make it pretty clear to see why it angers some, because through the direct system of voting, the leader in the popular vote is intended to always win. The problem with trying to surmount issues like this is that in some cases the electoral system is shown to be absolutely necessary—especially when there is a noticeable disconnect between the party’s choice and the leading candidate, as we are currently seeing in the Republican Party. In the event where citizens are supporting a candidate that the party rejects, it’s up to the electors to come to the best decision. Since they are partisan voters, the electors will take into account the interests of the party over that of the citizen.
Previously, only some states held direct popular elections for the electors, and in other states, the state legislature decided on the electors. That was subsequently changed and now every state holds statewide popular elections for electors. Maine and Nebraska were the last two states to fold into this system. This was in 1972 and 1996 respectively.
Forty-eight states and Washington, D.C. adopt the “winner take all” strategy, awarding electors as a single voting unit. Maine and Nebraska use the “congressional district method” to select electors. This means that one elector in each congressional district is selected by popular vote. The remaining two are selected by a statewide popular vote.
Most interestingly, the electors who form the Electoral College never meet as one body, but cast their votes for the President and Vice President in their state capitals or district capitals
Is there really a flawless voting system? To me the answer is probably not. In all honesty the Electoral College may have its faults, but I think the simplicity of it outweighs the rare cases where it fails. A phrase that I think fits perfectly is “tried and true”. The numbers don’t lie either. The candidate with the popular vote has only ever lost 4 times in 46 presidential elections. Whether you love it or hate it, I have a feeling it is here to stay. Maybe this is the election that will inform the public about the Electoral College. The upcoming election year will definitely be an interesting one to observe. I’ll be curious to see how relevant the Electoral College will still prove to be.
Shaunak Vaidya is a high school student in the Bay Area.