@FactsOnly | How the Electoral College picked the president
Basically, the Founding Fathers didn’t trust “the people” to be informed enough to get it right.
By Amrit Singh
The results of the presidential election took many off guard, and this certainly includes many supporters of Hillary Clinton upset that the Democratic candidate received more votes than her opponent, and yet lost the election. The reason for this is an antiquated system set up by this country’s Founding Fathers which was designed to create a layer between the people and the presidency: Those dudes were fearful of direct democracy! They didn’t trust the people to be informed enough, back in the 18th century, to choose the right candidate. So they devised the Electoral College, wherein people voted and then states appointed “Electors” to ultimately vote, and for the second time in 16 years, we have a President-elect who didn’t win the popular vote.
This is because, under the Electoral College, not all votes have equal impact. Let’s look at the basic mechanics of the Electoral College to understand.
Each state has a set number of electors (think of them as “points” for now), based on its number of Congress people. The total is 538: The country has 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, and then there’s Washington, D.C., which has no federal representation but is given three electors because hey, they live in this country, too. To win the presidency, you need a majority of 538, and that equals 270.
The rub is two-fold. First, most states appoint their electors on a “winner take all” system. This means that you can win a state by 1 vote and get all the points, or 1 million votes, and just the same. So you can get into a situation where you win fewer states by many more votes, and lose other states by only a few votes, and wind up with more votes overall but less electoral points. And that is what happened this time around for Hillary. This also means that if you’re in a state like New York which basically always votes Democrat, yet you’re one of the millions of people there who vote Republican, your presidential vote hasn’t really mattered for decades. This is not exactly a voter-participation-friendly fact over here.
Another point of contention for critics of the Electoral College is that under this system, not all votes have equal impact: Smaller, less populous states have disproportionately powerful votes. For instance, California has 39 million people and 55 electoral votes, which means you get 1 elector for 709,000 people. But if you live in Wyoming, which has about 584,000 people and 3 electoral votes, you get 1 elector for about every 195,000 people. Under this system, smaller states get disproportionate electoral say.
That gets to a good reason for the Electoral College: to protect smaller states on an individual basis (e.g. if the election was a straight popular vote, New York and California would determine most of the election, and candidates wouldn’t bother molding their message or platform to cater to the needs of smaller states). But clearly, it creates issues when you think about our system in terms of democracy.
Can it ever be overturned? Well, it’s Constitutional law (Article II, Sec. 1), so would require a Constitutional amendment, which is a very high bar. For that to happen, both political parties would have to be deeply on board, and that’s not likely because the Electoral College system protects the two-party system. If you had a direct popular vote here, third parties would have a lot more swag.
While the college itself is probably in place for good, the “winner take all” system is decided on a state-by-state level (which is why you have a few states like New Hampshire who split up their votes based on county), so you could work with that. And there are movements afoot. To wit, the National Popular Vote is an interstate compact aimed at ensuring the winner of the popular vote also wins the presidency. It seeks to get states representing 270 electoral votes to cast their electors in favor of the popular vote winner, thereby granting that person the presidency.
It’s sorta radical and subversive in design, but 11 states have already ratified it (including NY and CA). Those states represent 165 electoral votes; the compact needs states representing 105 more votes to sign on, and it’s there. More info is at nationalpopularvote.com.
@FactsOnly is a column written by REVOLT Chief Political Correspondent Amrit Singh. For more on the fallout of this election, follow him on Twitter.