The Electoral College: It’s who you’re really voting for


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All votes cast on Nov. 8 will determine which candidate’s representatives will participate in the Electoral College vote on their behalf. The government established the Electoral College as a compromise between having Congress and the majority vote of the citizens decide who would be President of the United States.

“You’re not casting your vote for a candidate, you’re voting for a representative in the Electoral College,” Everett Kindig, history professor, said.

The Process

The amount of representative each state has in both the House of Representatives and the Senate determines the amount of electors from each state. In this case, the District of Columbia is treated like a state and receives three electoral votes. The Electoral College is comprised of 538 total representatives, and a candidate must receive at least 270 votes to claim the majority win.

If one candidate cannot reach the majority — 270 votes, the decision will go to the House of Representatives and then the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a Republican.

Each candidate has his or her own choice of electors who they nominate to represent them in the Electoral College. However, under federal law electors do not have to vote for the candidate their state has chosen in the popular vote.

“There are some electors who have said they might not vote with their state because they don’t like the candidate,” Jeremy Duff, associate professor of political science, said.

Certain states require that the electors must pledge their vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote, but no elector has been formally prosecuted for changing their vote.

“We might see more faithless electors who vote for someone other than the candidate that won their state,” Duff said.

All states, except for Nebraska and Maine, have a winner-takes-all system for electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine award electoral votes to both parties in order to achieve proportional representation. This form of representation can reflect the interests of states in a more accurate way.

“We don’t really get to see the blended nature of states, and it’s hard to see that through the lens of the Electoral College,” Linda Veazey, associate professor of political science, said.

Each governor will send a Certificate of Ascertainment to Congress with the selected electoral voters after the winner of the popular vote in each state is determined. The chosen electors for each state will meet for their official vote on Dec. 19, and Congress will officially tally the votes on Jan. 6. On Jan. 20, the next President of the United States will be inaugurated into office.

The official decision made by the Electoral College usually concurs with the popular or majority vote, but there have been four times in history where candidates did not win the popular vote, but did win the majority of electoral votes and the presidency.

“The Electoral College will usually reflect the will of the American people, unless the election is very close,” Kindig said.

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Pros and Cons

There are pros and cons to the Electoral College process. On one hand, the Electoral College allows smaller states to have a stronger voice in the election.

“The Electoral College gives smaller states more leverage,” Kindig said.

Veazey said people from rural states can feel like their state matters in a way that’s not just about big cities. The Electoral College can also reflect the fact that living in different areas have different needs.

“It represents the interests and strengths of the states,” Kindig said.

There are also down sides to the Electoral College process. Candidates tend to focus the majority of their attention and campaign on swing states who are not already decided in their vote for a certain party.

“Campaigns focus their resources on particular states in a way they wouldn’t if they were just going for the most votes. Some voters may want more or less attention to their states from candidates,” Veazey said.

Duff said he dislikes how the Electoral College process places so much emphasis on large population states, and that it also gives more power to swing states.

“It forces candidates to campaign heavily in some states and not at all in others. Candidates tend to neglect other states that are safely red or blue,” Duff said.

Kindig said the Electoral College process has become less important over the years due to the party system, and instead of voting based on an evaluation of the candidate, electoral votes are given to a certain party.

The process can be confusing for non-Americans because the Electoral College system is not common throughout other countries, and the United States is unique in using this system to elect our executive president.

“Because we have this indirect system of electing our president, it doesn’t really make sense to people from other countries and democracies who are used to a direct vote,” Veazey said.

Swing States

Party loyalty can cloud the true political leanings of a state. Veazey said the Electoral College gives people the idea that all of a state supports a certain party, when in reality most communities are much more purple.

These purple areas can include swing states, and are generally considered crucial to candidates when it comes to gaining electoral votes. Typical swing states have included Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, but recently there have been some new additions to the list.

“More recently, we have some different swing states than we once did, including Virginia and North Carolina,” Veazey said.

Swing states can make or break a presidential campaign, and are the primary focus of candidates during their fight to gain votes in both the popular and majority vote.

Student Reactions

Students have mixed feelings on the continued use of the Electoral College system. Steven Mitchell, music education junior, thinks the process is fair enough to work.

“I like that in the Electoral College you have to have a clear majority of votes to win,” Mitchell said.

Other students like Ciera Phillips, psychology junior, think the process is outdated and doesn’t matter in the long run.

“The electoral process doesn’t matter because the states will go with the popular vote either way,” Phillips said.

Drew Dabbs, music performance sophomore, agrees with Phillips that the popular vote should matter more than the electoral vote.

“We should rely on the popular vote when it comes to picking our president,” Dabbs said.

There are also students like Gabriela Russell, biology sophomore, who believe there needs to be a balance in the system.

“You can’t always trust the popular vote, but you also can’t always trust the government to choose for everyone. There needs to be a balance between how much the popular and electoral votes matter,” Russell said.

History Lesson: Popular vote > electoral vote

  • 1824 – John Quincy Adams received neither the popular nor the majority electoral vote. Andrew Jackson received the most electoral and popular votes, but did not get the majority in the Electoral College. The vote was put to the House of Representatives and Adams was selected as President.
  • 1876 – Rutherford B. Hayes won the majority Electoral College vote by 1 elector, but his opponent Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote.
  • 1888 – Benjamin Harrison won the electoral vote, but lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland by more than 90,000 votes.
  • 2000 – George W. Bush won the electoral vote against Al Gore 271-266. However, Gore won the popular vote by about 540,000 votes.

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