The Electoral College is the constitutional mechanism used to elect the President and Vice president of the United States. Unlike other liberal democracies with presidential systems, the United States does not use direct popular elections to select its chief political executive. Instead, the popular vote is mediated and distorted by an electoral college. The winner of the popular vote in all states except Maine determines how each state's electoral college vote is cast. Each state is apportioned electoral college votes equivalent to its number of U.S. Senators and Representatives. While the District of Columbia is apportioned one elctoral college vote for its Delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam receive no electroral college votes for havign Delegates in the U.S. House of Representatives. Indeed, U.S. citizens resident in Puerto Rico cannot even cast popular votes in U.S. presidential elections.
Other Electoral Colleges
France, which uses direct popular elections to select its President, uses an electoral college of all elected officials in the country to elect Senators in its parliament.
Distributive Justice and its Enemies
The Electoral College is opposed by some in the dKos community, and defended by others. While there have been claims that it was designed to protect the interests of southern slaveholders, it was actually modelled after Roman processes, designed by respected thinkers after a lot of study of classical government forms. The three fifths compromise, making slaves count for 3/5 of a citizen for apportionment purposes, was part of the Electoral College until it was removed by the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution in 1868, but fact that the Compromise existed in the formative process of the E.C. leads some to argue that the Electoral College is a racist structure.
There are two important parts to this constitutional arrangement, which are actually separate issues but often confused.
The first is vesting the power to elect the President in the hands of a select group of individuals. Constitutionally this is still the case. Presidential Electors can nominate and vote for any qualified US citizen to be President. Any attempt to force them to follow the wishes of other citizens expressed in ballots is unconstitutional. Suporters of the college argue the intention was to add a representative "republic" layer between the public and the election. Opponents would say that the words 'democracy' and 'republic' were interchangeable when the US constitution was written and that the practice is unnecessary now.
The second is the arrangement for allocating 'Electors' between the several states. This is the part familiar to today's political activists, who ignore the actual constitutional power of Electors and concentrate on the distribution of 'Electoral votes'. One claimed paradox in the college is that the size of the House is determinative. Thus George W Bush would have won any election in 2000 where the House had less than 491 members and Al Gore would have won any election where the House was larger than 656 members. However, this is not really a paradox since increasing the size of the house degrades the senatorial weight in the electoral votes. Increasing the size of the House without increasing the size of the Senate only makes the Electoral College more reflective of the nationwide popular vote. The current ratios of Representatives to Senators, and of voters per Representative, exist by Act of Congress, not the Constitution itself.
According to the traditional theory, the Electoral College seeks to protect state sovereignty in the same way that our legislative branch does, by combining regional and popular representation. Each state is awarded a number of Electoral Votes, determined by adding together the number of that state's Senators and Representatives. Since every state has two senators, the smallest number of Electoral Votes a state can be awarded is three. Washington D.C. also has three Electoral Votes.
This makes a total of 538 Electoral Votes. Each Electoral Vote is entrusted to an individual Presidential Elector who are elected or appointed from the several States and the District of Columbia according to State Laws. The Electors from each State meet in the relevant State Capitol at an appointed date and cast votes for the President and Vice-President. The College never meets or debates collectively across the Nation.
The Electoral College is a majority system, not a plurality system. This means that in order to win the Electoral College, a presidential candidate has to get 270 Electoral Votes. It is important to recognize that this is still true even when a competitive third party is running a candidate for the presidency. It is not enough for one candidate to receive more Electoral Votes than the others, because they could all be below 270 votes total. Instead, a candidate must receive more Electoral Votes than all other candidates combined.
Electoral Votes are awarded on a state level, on a winner-take-all basis (except for Maine and Nebraska, which award two electoral votes to the statewide winner and remaining electoral votes to the winner in each congressional district). Even if a state race is extremely close, the winner receives all of the state's Electoral Votes. In 2000, one little-known fact is that Gore won more of the closest states than Bush did - five of the top seven closest states, or six of the top seven if you count Florida. This is seen as an inequity by many, or just part of the strategy by others.
Several alternative electoral systems have been suggested:
- Nationwide or Direct, Popular Vote: This would give every U.S. citizen equal voting power in electing the U.S. President and Vice President. Ceteris paribus it is the most fair possible electoral system. All other liberal democracy with a presidential systems usew this system for that reason. Opponents of this reform argue that the Electoral College protects state sovereignty. What they really mean is that direct, popular election would advantage large population states (which are usually more liberal and more non-white) and therefore disadvantage smaller populated states. This argumentment is flawed because it assumes that states rather individiual persopns may have "rights." Only people have rights. States are entities, geographically bounded subnational governments populated by individuals who have rights.
- Proportional Allocation By Congressional District: Rather than awarding by state, award an Electoral Vote to whoever wins each congressional district, and then two more (for the Senators) to whoever wins the state. As stated above, Maine and Nebraska currently award their Electoral Votes in this manner. While it seems a good suggestion at first, it's exposed as unworkable due to gerrymandering. The House is supposed to be related to popular representation. In 2000, Gore actually won the popular vote, but Bush carried 239 congressional districts, while Gore carried 196. Using this method, Bush would have won by a landslide.
- Proportional Allocation By Statewide Popular Vote: In 2004, a non-profit group named The People's Choice for President proposed an initiative in the State of Colorado that would award that state's electoral votes according to the percentage of the statewide popular vote. In other words, a candidate who wins 60% of the vote would receive 5 of 9 electoral votes. The proposal has good and bad things going for it; the main down-side is that it could work unfairly against either party unless it is implemented uniformly across the United States. An interesting side-effect of this proposal is that it would make it easier for third-party candidates to gain electoral votes. Had this system been adopted in all states by the 2000 election, the number of electors would be: Gore - 269, Bush - 263, Nader - 6 (for full details see: Hypothetical Proportional Allocation By Statewide Popular Vote in 2000. Note that under that scenario, the 2000 election would have gone to the House, and Bush would have won, although Lieberman may have won VP.
- Automatic Plan, abolishing the Presidential Electors, could be carried through quite rapidly. . That is, allocating Electoral Votes automatically according to some voting formula instead of electing individuals to be Electors who then have to cast a ballot to give effect to those 'electoral votes'. In the electronic age, it seems anachronistic that the votes must still be cast by individuals. On the other hand, it is unlikely the advocates of popular election would support abolishing the electors without more radical changes. and it is impossible for a constitutional amendment to pass without their agreement. The Automatic Plan would also kill any argument that the design of the college is based on Roman precedents.
Another quick and dirty hack of the electoral college, which was outlined a few years back, is summarized by the Amar brothers. It would provide for direct election of the President by passing laws in the 11 most populous states directing that those states' electors be allocated to the winner of the national popular vote. The winner of the popular vote would thus recieve 271 electoral votes and invariably win the Presidency. Additional laws in one or more additional states may be required following each census and reapportionment to ensure a majority of electoral votes go to the national popular vote winner. Because the Constitution provides that electors be delegated as the state legislature decides, no change to the Constitution is neccessary to effectively eliminate the electoral college except as a rubber stamp on the national popular vote.
In defense of the Electoral College system, physicist Alan Natapoff considered the effects of the electoral system, and of districted elections in general, on "vote power;" that is, the probability that a single vote will effect the outcome. Natapoff's contention is that a districted election preferable in all cases except the boundary case of a perfectly even race (50-50) with perfectly even voter preferences (50-50). In effect, districted election systems like the electoral college force candidates to campaign outside of the heaviest population centers, leading to broadened and theoretically moderated platforms. While Natapoff's specific claims may be disputed, his work indicates that there are more subtle effects of districted elections that should be more fully understood prior to enacting any reforms.
Support Turns on Advantage
Immediately prior to the 2000 election, strategists in the Bush/Cheney campaign worried they might win the popular vote, and lose the electoral college, and so opposed the electoral college system. . After the 2000 election, the Bush campaign became fervent advocates of the electoral college as the source of their claimed "mandate." In the 2004 election the Bush campaign suddenly discovered that a narrow victory in the popular vote gives you a much stronger mandate than merely winning the electoral college.