The Electoral College, Explained
In keeping with the educational component of The Everlasting GOP Stoppers, and due in no small part to the rampant gerrymandering of congressional districts that both parties have historically used to manipulate it in order to entrench congressional candidates, we’ve decided to put together a primer to explain The Electoral College, the process by which the United States uses to officially elect its President and Vice President. Here, we will give a brief explanation of what it is, how it works, it’s benefits and shortcomings, and how it is manipulated by both of our major political parties.
The Electoral College was inserted into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers as a compromise of the President and Vice President being elected by Congress and by that of the popular vote, and as a way to promote fairness between states. In theory, it was envisioned to give smaller states with less people more leverage so that the will of the larger, more populous states would not dominate the election process. The United States has 435 elected Representatives (one for each congressional district) and 100 Senators (two for each state). One Electoral Vote is designated for each of these congressmen, and an additional 3 were issued to the District of Columbia (which is not a state) by the 23rd Amendment which was ratified in 1961. This gives us 538 Electoral Votes. 270 (half of the existing, plus 1), are needed to win a general election. If one examines each state and counts its electoral votes, you’ll notice some abnormalities as it relates to the formula referenced above. There are reasons for this, but to keep things simple for this discussion, we won’t get into them here. The video at the bottom of the page explains that in futher detal.
When an individual casts his or her vote for President in a general election, they are actually voting for an Elector who has pledged their vote for a particular set of candidates. While most Electors are chosen by the parties themselves and are usually highly active within their local parties, it’s important to note that the Electors are not actually bound to their pledges, and in some rare cases have actually cast votes contrary for which they were elected.
While not all states divvy up their Electoral Votes in the same manner - Maine and Nebraska use what is called “proportional representation” – the rest are “winner take all.” This is one of the biggest problems with the Electoral College because it means that even if a candidate wins a very narrow margin of the popular vote (in Florida in 2000, the difference in popular vote between Al Gore and George Bush was 0.0092%), that candidate receives ALL of that state’s available Electoral Votes.
This of course, opens the door to gerrymandering, a process pioneered by Elbridge Thomas Gerry, whereby districts are redrawn to disproportionally represent and benefit a specific party. There are two main ways to do this. One, often referred to as “packing,” is where districts are re-drawn to heavily load a certain type of voter into the same districts to reduce their influence on other districts. A good example of this was recently attempted in Virginia on inauguration day, in a bill that was ultimately killed amid national outrage. The other method is called “cracking,” where voters of a certain type are distributed among many other districts of opposite voting types, thereby denying them a reliable voting bloc in a particular district.
Critics of the Electoral College have also pointed out that what was intended to give smaller states a level playing field has actually served to make them even more critical in a national election strategy. This helped create what are known as “swing states.” National candidates know that, as an example, California and its nation-leading 55 Electoral votes, being the most populous state and solidly Democratic, would be a waste of valuable resources in a national campaign and therefore gets far less attention than smaller states that could swing either way. This of course violates the very spirit upon which the Electoral College itself was created.
In the following video, you’ll see an example where it’s possible to win the presidency with 22% of the popular vote. It’s scary stuff, and entirely possible.
There have long been both proponents and opponents of the Electoral College in its present form, and there is a national movement that is gaining more support to the National Popular Vote. This movement is being fiercely opposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an uber-conservative lobbing group led by the Koch Brothers.
You will be hearing more about that here soon.
See Distribution of Electoral Votes HERE.
Read more about the Electoral College HERE.
Read more about the National Popular Vote HERE.
Read more about ALEC HERE.