The Electoral College, ignoring all its other problems, is a mathematical mess. I certainly see what the framers of the Constitution were thinking when they created it, as it was consistent with the way they created the Legislative Branch – an attempt to balance a single nation against the power of the states. But the number of states and disparity in state populations were nowhere near what they are today. Modern Electoral Math overwhelmingly distorts the influence of a single vote depending on which state you live in, and we’ve seen it go against the popular vote twice in the last five elections. 2020 could be even worse. All of that said, it is the system we have, and we should all understand how it works. In preparing this little bit of bloggery, I’ve learned a bit more myself.
Here’s how it works today – most people know a lot of this, but most people also don’t know all of it. When you fill out your ballot on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, in most states, you only see the names of the candidates on the ticket for President and Vice President, and so it feels like you’re casting your vote for them. But you’re not – you’re casting your vote for the electors associated with those candidates. On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, those electors then cast their ballots for the President and Vice President. So there’s one interesting fact – the American Presidency is not directly determined by the votes of tens of millions – it’s directly determined by the votes of 538. Now, of course, the electors pledge themselves to their candidates before the election, and so they are honor-bound to do as the voters told them. But there is literally (and I’m using the word “literally” correctly here, since I’m talking about the text of the Constitution) nothing stopping them from voting for somebody else – and in fact there have been 167 faithless electors in our past. One of them swung the first truly competitive election, causing John Adams to become President instead of Vice President to Thomas Pinckney, with the propagating effect of having Thomas Jefferson become Vice President to Adams. There were ten faithless electors in the 2016 election. Bottom line: the electors can basically do whatever they want.
So how do the electors actually vote? Well, they each get two votes, and they cast one for the President, and the other for the Vice President. So, an elector could cast a vote for candidates from different tickets, which has often been the case with faithless electors, as they often pick candidates that aren’t likely to win. As goofy as this process is, it was even worse before the 12th Amendment. That particular Amendment is extremely verbose (see below), but it’s biggest impact was on the relationship between the President and the Vice President. The original Constitution specified that each elector would get two votes, but that the top vote-getter would be President, and the runner up would be Vice President. George Washington had no real competition in his two elections, but in 1796, Adams and Jefferson had run fiercely against one another and were on opposite ends of the political system, leading to a rocky administration to say the least. Both the 1796 election and the 1800 election (which Jefferson won) also illustrated the kinds of tactics that this process allowed, as ties and/or their avoidance were manipulated to steer the election toward a desired result.
The 12th Amendment attempted to patch things up:
The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;-The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;-The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President-The person having the greatest number of votes as VicePresident, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.
I told you it was verbose.
Here’s another quirky thing about the Electoral College, which traces back to the original Constitution: an elector cannot cast both votes for someone from their state. This was of course originally intended to avoid biases in that regard, but it ultimately has no teeth, with the election cycle being so long in modern times. Dick Cheney was basically a Texas resident when he teamed up with George W. Bush, but there was plenty of time to get all the paperwork done to get around that.
So what determines how many electors a state has? As an avid fan of mathematics, here is where my blood boils. The formula is remarkably simple – it’s equal to the number of Senators you have plus the number of Representatives you have. Again – an attempt to bring some sort of balance into the math. But all it does is create a different imbalance. Every state has two Senators and at least one Representative. So that means Wyoming, the least populous state in the nation, has three electoral votes. But Wyoming would have three electoral votes even if only one person lived there. Meanwhile, the most populous state in the nation, California, has 55 electoral votes. That sounds fine, except 55 divided by 3 is a little over 18, and there are far more than 18 times as many people living in California as in Wyoming. In fact, the disparity is such that a vote in Wyoming counts three to four times more than a vote in California. Now – some have argued that voter turnout needs to be factored in there, but even when you do that, there’s a disparity factor of three to four between the “luckiest” and the “unluckiest”. There’s no getting around this math, and it’s the reason we’ve had two mismatches between the electoral vote and the popular vote in the past 20 years, and we will have more as long as a system optimized for the year 1789 is in place. Proponents of the Electoral College will argue that this is all because we live in a Republic and not a Democracy. But I will argue that is a red herring. The fact that we live in a Republic is not the problem. The problem is that we live in a Republic with consistently bad math that punishes voters for living in more highly populated states.
So, to summarize the Electoral College, you generally don’t even know who you’re voting for on Election Day, that person can in turn vote for whomever they choose, and even if they pick the one you wanted, your vote is guaranteed to mean more or less than that of a voter in another state. Other than that, yay for democracy!