Presidential Elections: The Electoral College

What is the Electoral College?
The institution established by the Founding Fathers to elect the president.
How does the Electoral College work?
1) Each state is awarded a certain number of Electoral College votes (ECVs).
2) This number is equal to that state’s representation in Congress – the number of Senators (2) plus the number of Representatives. Thus, in 2008, California had 55 ECVs while Wyoming had only 3.
3) There are a total of 538 ECVs.
4) To win the presidency, a candidate must win an absolute majority of ECVs – that is, 270.
5) Whichever candidate wins the most popular votes in a state receives all the ECVs of that state. This is not in the Constitution, but 48 of the 50 states have a state law requiring it.
6) The other two states – Maine and Nebraska – award ECVs on a different basis, depending on who wins the presidential vote in each congressional district.
7) The Electoral College never meets together. The Electors meet in their respective state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December and send their results to the vice-president in Washington DC.
8) If no candidate wins 270 ECVs, the president would be elected by the House of Representatives, each state having 1 vote – that is, a total of 50 votes.
9) The vice-president would be elected by the Senate, each Senator having 1 vote – that is, a total of 100 votes.
10) The winners would need to receive an absolute majority of the votes in the respective chambers.
11) Only twice has the Electoral College failed to come up with a winner and the election been thrown to Congress – 1800 and 1824
What are the strengths of the Electoral College system?
1) Preserves the voice of the small-population states.
2) Promotes a two-horse race, with the winner therefore likely to receive over 50% of the popular vote, giving the president a mandate to govern. In 25 of the last 37 elections (67%), the winner has gained more than 50% of the popular vote, but not in 1992, 1996 or 2000.
What are the weaknesses of the Electoral College System?
1) Small-population states are over-represented.
2) Winner-takes-all system can distort the result (such as in 2008, when Obama won 52% of the popular vote but 68% of the Electoral College votes).
3) Possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College (as Al Gore (Democrat) did in 2000).
4) Unfair to national third parties (such as Ross Perot (Independent) in 1992, who gained 19% of the popular vote, but no ECVs).
5) So-called ‘rogue’ or ‘faithless’ Electors vote for candidates other than the one who won the popular vote in their state.
6) The system used in the case of an Electoral College deadlock could result in the House choosing a president of one party and the Senate choosing a vice-president of another party.
What are the proposed reforms of the Electoral College system?
There are three main possible reforms of the Electoral College system:
1) Abandon the winner-takes-all system for a more proportional system (already used by two states – Maine and Nebraska). Had Florida been using a proportional system in 2000, it might have eased the problem. Instead of deciding who was going to get 25 ECVs and who was going to get none, it might instead have decided who should receive 13 ECVs and who should get 12.
2) Pass state laws to prohibit ‘rogue’ electors from casting such rogue votes (26 states already have these).
3) Abolish the Electoral College altogether and decide the election on the popular vote. The problem with this is that it would encourage a multi-candidate election with the winning gaining only 35-40% of the votes.

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