It’s that time of year again, election time. With living and teaching in another country, naturally I’ve talked a lot about the upcoming US election and just how the system works. Like many Americans I’ve had to do my own homework on the infamous Electoral College. It’s not so straight forward, and it’s certainly different than the Argentine way. Here in Argentina I’ve looked for the Republican and Democrat equivalents and realized there aren’t any. Despite there being some similarities in terms of how the government is structured, this is just one of the many differences. For one voting in Argentina is mandatory. The legal voting age was just lowered last week to 16 years old from 18; days before election all campaigning is prohibited, and the president is elected by winning the majority of the vote, the popular vote.
Surprisingly enough the President in the United States can be elected President without winning the popular vote. How the President does win is by the ‘electoral vote’ in the Electoral College, which is the sum of Senators and Representatives (538 votes). In the US government, each state has members of the House of Representatives based on the population of the state, and two Senators, regardless of the size of the state. This is where the 538 number comes from, and in order to be elected, a candidate must have a majority of the electoral votes. Since 1964, this number has been 270.
Evidently the Electoral College was not the Founding Fathers first choice, nor their only idea for how to elect a new president. As the US Constitution was being drafted, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention considered five ways in choosing a President:
- By debate and vote in the U.S. Congress
- By the popular vote of the people
- By vote of the State legislatures
- By vote of the State governors
- By electors – the Electoral College system
Unable to agree on how to elect electors, the delegates eventually settled on the idea of leaving it up to each state. The electors of the Electoral College are real people who are generally nominated or chosen by votes in their corresponding state. They can be state elected officials, party leaders or people with some personal or political affiliation to the presidential candidates. So when an American votes, they are voting for their state elector who then votes on behalf of the people in their state for the president. In most cases the electors vote based on the majority vote in their state, but this is the law only in 27 states, including Washington D.C. as a state. The other 24 states have no law requiring their electors to vote based on the majority vote and can instead choose the candidate of their choice. For a breakdown of state law, go here.
This seems odd to me, although history has shown that generally the Electoral College has been true to public opinion. In 2000, however, the famous election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was only the fourth time in the history of the country where the president was not elected based on the popular vote. This time represented a great crisis in the country and regardless of opinions why, few will disagree that the country has only become more polarized ever since. The popular vote didn’t matter in this case, so why would your vote matter today many wonder. Historically only around 50% of the population votes anyway (58% voted in the 2008 presidential election). See the history here.
The validity of the Electoral College has been debated for years, and was close to being reversed in 1970, although obviously the bill for change wasn’t ultimately approved. Today it comes down to a math game, and a president can be elected by not getting a single person’s vote in 39 states or Washington D.C., unless they win the popular vote in just 11 of these 12 states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. These are the most populated states in other words, with the most electoral votes. This doesn’t even consider the now key-phrase in any election “Swing State.”
The Founding Fathers originally felt that this system would better represent the full population, as the states’ representatives would vote on behalf of their people. Many things have changed since this time, however. The two party dominant system was not in place then as it is today. Communications and news no longer take weeks to deliver and due to the media, the world has access to every word spoken by the candidates. To the Founding Fathers, a tweet was just the name for the sound a bird made.
Each election the debate returns whether or not the Electoral College in fact represents the true public opinion. Those who oppose the method have many criticisms, most of all being that a president can be elected without winning the popular vote. Although this has happened in history, proponents of the method will say that it has happened few times and that the Electoral College is a weighed voting system that is designed to give more power to the states with more votes, although it allows small states to swing an election; thus the system considers and better represents smaller rural areas, and wouldn’t allow larger metropolitan or highly populated areas to dominate an election alone.
Unfortunately the country is very polarized today and only gets worse during election time. Later this week some people will rejoice and others will be tremendously disappointed. Politics aside, I truly hope the voice of the peopleis heard rather than it being a game of mathematics.