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U.S. Electoral College

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In accordance with the United States Constitution, the United States Electoral College meets every four years in the several U.S. States to elect the President of the United States.

Voting for president of the United States is an indirect election. Voters within the several states and the District of Columbia (which is considered a state when voting for President according to Amendment XXIII of the Constitution) choose electors when they vote for president; the number of electors assigned to each state is equal to the number of Senators (always two) and Representatives that the state has in Congress, but no Senator or Representative may serve as an elector. The number of electors for the District of Columbia is equal to the number of senators and representatives for the least populous state. The voters vote on separate ballots for president and vice president, one of whom may not be an inhabitant of the same state as themselves.

Once voting is complete, a record of the votes is sent to the President of the Senate, who, in the presence of both houses of Congress, opens them up and tallies the votes. The person with the most votes for president becomes the new President on the following January 20, and the person with the most votes for vice president becomes vice president on the same date. If no person wins a majority of votes, the House of Representatives then votes to decide who shall become the next President.

In practice, the voters choose slates of electors pledged to candidates for president and vice president; in most states, the names of the electors do not appear on the ballot. Legally, the electors are free to cast their votes for anyone they choose; in practice, electors almost never vote for a candidate they are not pledged to. Several states, but not all, have laws stating that if an elector becomes "faithless" and does not vote for the candidate to which he is pledged he can be replaced, but the constitutionality of such laws is debated and has never been tested.

Most states direct their electors to vote for the candidate who received the plurality of votes by individual voters within that state, but a few (Maine and Nebraska) divide their votes proportionately.

Table of contents

A controversial system

Supporters of the College

Supporters of the college claim that it acts as a method of amplifying the voting power of an individual voter from a specific state in a U.S. presidential election. Without the Electoral College, with the vote based on majority rule, it would be possible to win a strict majority of votes located in a few geographically restricted areas of the country.

The fear is without the college, one could campaign and win in only the 10 largest cities in the union disenfranchising (for one example) the sparsely populated mountain United States. This is illustrated by the fact that the combined total population of the 10 largest cities in the nation is (from the 1995 Statistical Abstract of the United States) almost 21.9 million. The entire population of the mountain region of the United States (et al) is 15.2 million. This effect is magnified when the analysis is broadened to the 10 largest metropolitan areas, not just the size of the largest cities proper. This would allow a candidate to focus resources, time, and political capital in winning the greatest numbers of voters in the cities. It is felt that this pressure would apply to all parties, and lead to voters in the sparsely populated West being completely ignored.

An example of a situation where the interests of a metropolitan area directly conflict with the interests of a state or region, the example of Los Angeles (pop. 3.5 million) and Colorado (pop. 3.2 million) river water is illustrative.

A direct election would focus candidates resources on large cities such as Los Angeles. The debate would naturally center on local issues that directly effected Los Angeles citizens. Los Angeles derives a great deal of their water from the Colorado river, originating in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The amount of water reserved for California impacts Colorado significantly and directly, and its use results in much contention. Supporters of the college feel that competing interests such as these are best served by compelling candidates to campaign in smaller states and address their issues. If a direct election was instituted, Colorado would be ignored, as a candidate would have to campaign over the entire state (the 8th largest) for a smaller number of votes than the geographically much smaller city of Los Angeles.

Thus, the intent of the college is to favor a candidate whose appeal is more broadly distributed on a geographical basis across the nation (see the 2000 election, below). This may lead to the rare circumstance of giving the election to a candidate who did not win a majority, or even a plurality, of the popular vote. This is seen as preferable than giving the election to one who is favored by a majority of voters but whose support is concentrated in a minority of regions or only by voters in large states.

The Electoral College was originally crafted by the framers of the Constitution in part as a compromise between larger and smaller states, as illustrated above. To elaborate further, Montana had a population of 902,195 in 2000, and has 3 electoral votes. California had 33,871,648 people and 54 electoral votes in 2000. Thus, while California has many more electoral votes to cast, people in Montana individually have a greater influence on their state's electoral votes. California has 627,252 people per electoral vote while Montana has 300,731 people per electoral vote. While largely ignored by Presidential candidates in elections, the smaller states are not as completely irrelevant as they would be otherwise.

In the 2000 Presidential election, for example, when Al Gore finished just 5 electoral votes behind George W. Bush, a switch of electors from any state, even those as seemingly irrelevant as Montana, would have switched the outcome of the election.

Detractors of the College

Detractors of the college feel that this system is out of date and undemocratic. They advocate direct election[?] of the President by the voters, which sometimes produces different results than the electoral college system (for example, the 1888 and 2000 elections). Supporters of direct election argue that it disenfranchises no one, since it gives everyone an equal vote, regardless of which part of the country they live in, and oppose giving disproportionately amplified voting power to voters in small states. On the contrary, the electoral college disenfranchises those voters in every state who cast their votes for the candidate receiving fewer votes in that state. And it also partly disenfranchises voters in larger states by reducing their proportional contribution to the final election result.

Opponents of the electoral college point out that in replacing the majority vote as the determinant of who wins the election, supporters of the electoral college are actually endorsing minority vote as potentially preferable to majority vote. The arguments against majority vote boil down to objecting that the majority might make a decision that the minority doesn't like.

Opponents also point out that the electoral college assumes that voters within states vote monolithically, when in fact this is not the case. Many states are often deeply devided over how to vote in a Presidential election. A key element of democracy is that voters disagree among themselves on what they consider their interests, and this happens within states as well as between states. Thus, for example, in the 2000 election, New Hampshire (a small state) gave 48% of its votes to Bush, and 47% to Gore. According to the pro-electoral college model, as a small state, New Hampshire necessarily voted for its own local interests in supporting Bush. Yet, opponents point out, clearly the vote in that state was deeply divided as to what New Hampshire's "interests" were. Thus, opponents argue, the electoral college is based on a flawed assumption of monolithic voting patterns based on local interests which does not bear any relationship to the actual voting process. Supporters would argue that this is mitigated by the fact that states can decide to award their electoral votes proportionately, rather than as winner-take-all, despite the fact that few currently choose to do so.

Opponents also argue that the electoral college tends to favor a two-party system. Even when a third-party candidate receives a significant number of popular votes, he may not receive a majority in any state an may not garner even a single electoral vote, as was the case of Ross Perot in the 1992 elections.

Alternative Systems

The electoral college requires a majority vote in order for a victor to be declared. In the case of a hypothetical direct election with multiple candidates, the question of majority versus plurality comes into play. In many recent American presidential elections (1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, and 2000), no single candidate achieved an absolute majority of the popular vote. Some nations with direct Presidential voting, such as France, have a second round of voting if no candidate achieves a majority of votes in the first round; in the second round, the election is restricted to the two candidates with the highest number of votes. Some have argued that the French system creates problems of its own; it is possible that the initial vote becomes divided up between so many candidates that someone who is highly undesirable to most voters can make it to the second round of voting, as occurred in 2002 with the rise of the extremist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen to the runoff election. One solution to this problem would be to implement instant runoff voting.

The 2000 election

To illustrate the debate, the 2000 election is useful. The various totals are:

  • Gore won 50,996,582 votes (the plurality, not majority, of total votes cast)
  • Bush won 50,456,062 votes
  • Nader won 2,858,843 votes

  • Gore won 20 states
  • Bush won 30 states (the majority of states won)

  • Gore won 677 counties
  • Bush won 2,434 counties (the majority of counties won)

  • Gore won New Mexico with 48% of the vote, slightly more than Bush also at 48% (286,783 votes to 286,417); but Gore received all the electoral votes from that state, and Bush received none.

  • Bush won New Hampshire with 48% of the vote, compared to Gore's 47% (273,135 votes to 265,853); but Bush got all the electoral votes for that state, while Gore got none.

Debate over the merit of the Electoral College came to a head after the 2000 Presidential election, with some politicians, such as Hillary Clinton calling for a Constitutional amendment abolishing the system.

External links

  • Math Against Tyranny (http://www.avagara.com/e_c/reference/00012001.htm) - an article describing MIT researcher Alan Natapoff's analysis favoring the electoral college system
  • League of Women Voters (http://www.lwv.org/where/promoting/electoral_college) - A web page from the League of Women Voters advocating direct election and the abolition of the electoral college

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