Are you as free and independent as you think you are?
Most Americans will go to the polls in November believing that they will be voting for Barack Obama or John McCain for president.
But — while the ballot may give them the choice between those two names, as well as the names of third-party candidates — voters actually will be casting their votes for a slate of electors who will choose the next president when the Electoral College convenes in December.
(Actually, the Electoral College never meets as a whole national body. A state's electors meet in their state capital and cast separate ballots for the presidency and the vice presidency. Their votes are reported to Congress, where the final tally is calculated.)
If you go to your polling place planning to vote for a specific candidate, you will — sort of. Your vote will be counted (presumably) in the popular vote tally in your state and in the nation — but the election that will actually choose the next president and vice president will still be about five weeks away — and the only participants will be the electors who are chosen in November.
And, unless there is a virtually unprecedented coincidence, none of the electors will be named Obama or McCain.
A state's number of electors depends on its representation in Congress. Each state has two senators, so each state starts off with two electoral votes. Then, a state gets an additional electoral vote for each congressional district it has. Representation in the House is based on population, so larger states, obviously, have larger electoral vote totals.
Each party nominates its candidates for the Electoral College in the months prior to the election. Their names won't appear on your ballot, but if you vote for Obama, you're actually voting for the slate of electors who were nominated by the Democrats in your state and if you vote for McCain, you're actually voting for the slate of electors who were nominated by the Republicans in your state.
I presume it works the same way for third-party and independent candidates — although it's been 40 years since a third-party/independent candidate received more popular votes in any state than either the Democrat or the Republican.
In America, we have direct democracy in the elections of every official except the president.
To elect a president, we still rely on representative democracy, as we have for more than 200 years.
That, my friend, is how the Electoral College works.
But, even when it appears simple, it really isn't.
The general assumption is that, if a candidate gets the most popular votes in a given state, that candidate will receive all of that state's electors.
And, indeed, most of the time, if a candidate receives more popular votes in a particular state than anyone else, that candidate receives all of the electoral votes.
But the winner-take-all assumption doesn't always hold.
For one thing, there are very few laws that govern the behavior of electors.
A couple of states have made their own rules for voting in the Electoral College. Maine and Nebraska allocate their electoral votes on a proportionate basis. A candidate can win some electoral votes by winning the overall popular vote, and a candidate can win an electoral vote by receiving the most popular votes in a congressional district.
Maine has had this law on the books since 1972, and Nebraska made it a law there in 1992.
It's legally possible for more than one candidate to receive electoral votes from Maine and Nebraska. To date, however, that point of law has been a moot point because none of the congressional districts in either state has voted for the candidate who lost the state's total popular vote.
In a close race, though, it's possible that such a split could occur.
(And, in another interesting twist, I've heard talk recently about legislative efforts in some states that would require the electors of those states to vote for whoever receives the most votes nationally — regardless of which candidate finished first in that state.)
For another thing, there have always been "faithless electors," who vote for someone other than the candidate nominated by their party or who choose not to vote at all. Typically, the "faithless electors" act alone, and they usually appear to abandon campaigns that have already lost — so their support for or opposition to their party's candidate is not seen as critical to the outcome.
In fact, America had a so-called "faithless elector" in 2004. One of the electors from Minnesota — a state that was carried by John Kerry — voted for Kerry's running mate, John Edwards. (See above.)
And, over the years, there have been other instances of "faithless electors." In 1988, West Virginia voted for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket over Bush-Quayle, but one of the electors voted for Bentsen, not Dukakis. In 1976, the state of Washington voted for the Ford-Dole ticket over Carter-Mondale, but one of the state's electors voted for Ronald Reagan, who had lost the battle for the Republican nomination to Ford that summer.
The "faithless elector" phenomenon doesn't happen often — but it does happen.
Nearly half of the states have laws on the books now to punish the "faithless electors," although usually parties can rely on a high degree of loyalty from their electors. They were hand-picked by the parties or their nominees, after all.
Such laws are rarely, if ever, enforced. It appears that electors are at a greater risk of being disciplined by the state party than they are of being punished for violating the law if they choose not to vote for the candidate who carried the state in November.
What are some of the arguments for and against continuing to use the Electoral College?
Those who believe it is an antiquated system that should be scrapped and presidents should be elected by direct vote say
- a candidate can lose the popular vote and still be elected by the Electoral College.
- under the winner-take-all system, candidates focus their attention and resources on large states where the race is close. Small states, and large states where the outcome is a foregone conclusion, are ignored.
- participation is discouraged in states where a campaign is not competitive — opponents of the Electoral College say this would be eliminated by direct vote for president because parties would have more incentive to get out their voters everywhere, not just in a few battleground states.
Supporters of the Electoral College say
- in order to be elected, a candidate must demonstrate a widespread ability to win votes. A Democrat, for example, cannot be elected merely by carrying a handful of large states, like California and New York, where Democrats have been successful on a regular basis in recent years.
- the power of minority groups is enhanced. They can provide the winning edge in close contests.
- the system maintains the integrity of the separation of powers in the Constitution.
A lot has been written about the Electoral College in recent years, especially after George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000.
Among those speaking against retaining the Electoral College are
- New York Times, "Making Votes Count," Aug. 29, 2004.
- Bradford Plumer, Mother Jones, "The Indefensible Electoral College," Oct. 8, 2004.
Do you want to know more about the Electoral College? Here are some links for that:
- About.com: The Electoral College System
- About.com: Why Keep the Electoral College?
- How Stuff Works
- Library of Congress
- Project Vote Smart
And, if you just want to have a little fun, here are some links where you can calculate the electoral votes, based on how you believe each state will vote.
- American Research Group Electoral Vote Calculator
- Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections Electoral College Calculator and Map Generator
- RealClearPolitics.com Electoral Map
- U.S. Electoral College Calculator Version 2.2
- Wall Street Journal Electoral College Calculator
- Washington Post Electoral College Prediction Map
There's a lot more information on the Electoral College out there.
Paul Maslin, writing in Salon.com, speculates about how Obama can reach the magical 270 mark that will give him a majority of the electoral votes.
"Certain cold realities haven't changed," Maslin writes. "Unless there is a popular-vote landslide in November, the presidential election is still best seen as a collection of 50 statewide contests."
And, in those 50 statewide contests, Maslin says he has observed some factors that will be important:
- "The number of competitive states has been contracting."
- "The number of states that shift markedly from one election to the next has also been contracting."
- "In a non-incumbent year with two candidates from regions that have been unrepresented at this level for a long time — the Rust Belt and the Southwest — stronger regional variations could occur."
- "Every successful GOP candidate since 1968 has hailed from California or Texas."
- "[T]he last two successful Democrats came from the South, a region that had underperformed in previous elections."
- "The choice of a vice-president has had a pretty spotty geographic impact in the past five elections."
Recently, there has been a lot of talk on both sides about making the election a 50-state campaign. It would be nice if that were truly possible, but the reality is that — with the Electoral College in place — it simply isn't feasible for either campaign to actively seek votes in certain areas.
That will become even more significant as the days of the campaign begin to dwindle and the focus narrows to the states that are too close to call.
But there is clearly a sentiment out there that the Electoral College has outlived whatever usefulness it had.
Not long ago, Obama paid a visit to North Dakota — the kind of place Democratic candidates never visit during a campaign.
North Dakota has only 3 electoral votes, and it hasn't voted for a Democrat for president in four decades.
It's as surprising to see a Democrat making an appearance in North Dakota as it would be to see McCain scheduling a campaign stop in the District of Columbia — which seldom gives the Democratic nominee less than 80% of its vote.
If the Electoral College were to be abolished and the election depended exclusively on the popular vote, candidates would have to look for votes wherever they could find them.
Perhaps, one day, the Electoral College will be abolished. But it's the procedure that will elect the next president.
And all the presidents in the foreseeable future.