Americans who go to the polls on Election Day don’t actually select the President directly.
They are technically voting for 538 electors who, according to the system laid out by the Constitution, meet in their respective states and vote for President and Vice President. These people, the electors, comprise the Electoral College, and their votes are then counted by the President of the Senate in a joint session of Congress.
Why did the framers choose this system? There are a few reasons: First, they feared factions and worried that voters wouldn’t make informed decisions. They didn’t want to tell states how to conduct their elections. There were also many who feared that the states with the largest voting populations would essentially end up choosing the President. Others preferred the idea of Congress choosing the President, and there were proposals at the time for a national popular vote. The Electoral College was a compromise.
The stain of slavery is on the Electoral College as it is on all US history. The formula for apportioning congressmen, which is directly tied to the number of electors, relied at that time on the 3/5 Compromise, whereby each slave in a state counted as fraction of a person to apportion congressional seats. This gave states in the South with many slaves more power despite the fact that large portions of their populations could not vote and were not free.
How it works
There’s an elector for every member of the House of Representatives (435) and Senate (100), plus an additional three for people who live in the District of Columbia.
Each state gets at least 3 electors. California, the most populous state, has 53 congressmen and two senators, so they get 55 electoral votes.
Texas, the largest reliably Republican-leaning state, has 36 congressmen and two senators, so they get 38 electoral votes.
Six states – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming – are so small, population-wise, that they only have one congressperson apiece, and the lowest possible three electoral votes. The District of Columbia also gets three electoral votes. Voters in Puerto Rico and other non-state territories get no electoral votes, although they can take part in presidential primaries.
The states are in charge of selecting their own electors. And a number of states do not require their electors to honor the election results, which has led, occasionally, to the phenomenon known as a “faithless elector.”
It takes 270 electoral votes to get a majority of the Electoral College. The total number of electors – 538 – cannot change unless there are more lawmakers added on Capitol Hill or a constitutional amendment. But the number of electors allocated to each state can change every 10 years, after the constitutionally-mandated Census.
The number of congressmen is reapportioned – that’s the technical term – according to changes in the population. Some states gain a House seat or two and others lose some. No state, no matter how small, can have zero members of Congress. But this is why there’s been heated political debate over whether the US Census should ask if someone is a citizen. Some fear that asking it could make an accurate population count more difficult, or that states with many immigrants could end up with fewer lawmakers in elections starting in 2022, after the 2020 Census is complete.
If there’s a tie among the electors or if nobody gets a majority, then the election goes to the House of Representatives. Each state’s delegation of lawmakers gets one vote and they choose between the top three electoral vote-getters. According to the 12th Amendment, if nobody gets a majority by a certain deadline, the Vice President becomes President. If there’s no majority for the Vice President, the House delegations are excused and only the senators choose the Vice President. The 20th Amendment changed the deadline from March 4 to January 20.
Most states (except for Maine and Nebraska, which split some of their electoral votes) give all their electoral votes to the person who wins the popular vote in that state. There are very Democratic parts of Texas and very Republican parts of California, for instance. But unless those states move to apportion their electoral votes differently, it is only the state popular vote that really matters.
Who likes this system?
A popular vote system certainly would be simpler to understand.
However, as proponents of the Electoral College point out, if you thought that recount in Florida in 2000 was nasty, imagine a nationwide recount of more than 130 million votes. THAT would be messy. And it could happen. Some states have automatic recounts for elections that are separated by less than .1% In 2016, with 136 million voters, that would have been a margin of around 136,000 votes. You can imagine a recount in the razor-thin election of 1960, which featured a less-than .2% difference in vote totals, but a solid Electoral College victory for John F. Kennedy.
One of the most important supporters is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has weighed in against the idea of a national popular vote effort on the Senate floor.
Some defenses of the Electoral College have a racial tinge. Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage said that without the Electoral College, white people will have less say, which is quite sad considering the 3/5 Compromise helped bring about the Electoral College in the first place.
“Actually what would happen if they do what they say they’re gonna do is white people will not have anything to say,” LePage said, according to reports. “It’s only going to be the minorities that would elect. It would be California, Texas, Florida. All the small states like Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, Rhode Island, you’ll never see a presidential candidate again. You’ll never see anybody at the national stage come to our state,” he said. “We’re gonna be forgotten people. It’s an insane, insane process.”
But 65 percent of Americans supported selecting the President by popular vote, compared to 32% who preferred the Electoral College in a June 2018 PRRI/Atlantic survey. There’s less support if the wording includes changing the Constitution. A Pew survey in March of 2018 asked if Americans supported amending the Constitution to select the President by popular vote and a smaller 55%, still a popular majority, endorsed the idea.
However, the Electoral College is written into the Constitution and changing the Constitution is very difficult. It takes years to accomplish and requires broad majorities in Congress or state legislatures. States that currently benefit from the Electoral College would have to give up some of that power. The other possibility is something like the aforementioned agreement by states to honor the national popular vote winner. But you can bet if that proposal takes hold, there will be lawsuits.
That said, the Electoral College has actually changed three times, each by constitutional amendment. The 12th Amendment, passed after the tie election of 1800 (read about it!) made it so that electors voted for President and Vice President instead of voting for two people who could be President. The 20th Amendment put a time limit on the process. The 23rd Amendment gave electors to the District of Columbia.
And there was a serious move decades ago to abolish the Electoral College altogether. In 1968, a proposal to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote system easily passed in the House. It was filibustered in the Senate.