Most Americans are under the impression that when they cast a vote for their choice for their candidate in the Presidential election that they are voting for that candidate directly. They aren’t. Our system is much more indirect than that. Instead, we have the Electoral College, which is a process developed by the Founding Fathers as a compromise, more because they couldn’t agree on anything else than that they thought the Electoral College system was the best way to go.
The Electoral College is not a physical college or a place: it is the name of the process. It consists of electors, who are people who cast the only votes that actually count in the election. There are currently 538 electors, which is equal to the number of Representatives in the House of Representatives, plus the number of Senators, plus three electors for the District of Columbia. This is why you may have recently heard about the magic ‘270’ number, which is the number that tips you over half of the number of electors needed to win the Electoral College.
Every state chooses its electors according to its own laws. Here in Georgia, we have 16 electors, and according to our law, the electors must be chosen by each party prior to the election itself. Then, depending upon whichever party’s candidate gets the most vote, the Governor would then certify that party’s slate of electors. There is no law requiring the electors to vote for the winning candidate, but given the fact that they are members of the winning party and were chosen by the party’s leaders, they generally do so.
Most states have an all-or-none approach like Georgia does. Whichever party’s candidate gets the most votes gets all the electors. Some people argue that this is not fair: if a candidate wins 51% to 49%, they get all 16 electors, same as if they won 99% to 1%. Maine and Nebraska each have some variation on ‘proportional representation’ which means that they divide up their electors based on how many votes each party’s candidate got.
“So why was it done this way in the first place?” You may ask. At the time the Founding Fathers were creating the U.S. Government, there were no democratically elected executive leaders in the world. No one knew how to do this. The delegates to the congressional convention argued. One group wanted congress to pick the chief executive. The other group argued that this would diminish the opportunity for checks and balances and lead to too much political corruption and too many backroom deals. Then an argument was made that the populace wasn’t sophisticated or educated enough to make such an important decision as who should lead the country. This was in a time not only before the internet, but before wire services or any form of timely, reliable news over distances. Much of the country couldn’t read and had no access to newspapers or other forms of information. Some of the delegates feared that a wily executive could manipulate ignorant people and grab dangerous amounts of power that way.
Eventually a compromise was reached. Each state was allowed to pick its own electors however it wanted to, and those electors would act as intermediaries between the population and the actual vote, thus ensuring that the vote would be well-reasoned. If nothing else, the Electoral College gives us a much more decisive answer than a simple vote would give us after an election, given some of the slim margins of victory in some precincts.
Whether or not this system is still valid and/or appropriate in the information age is a completely different debate, and one in which I will not participate at this moment. It is, however, what the system is, and to change it would require a vast rehaul of our Constitution, which is no small task.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.