What is the Electoral College?
Should we abolish the Electoral College?
By Lorelei Yang & Josh Herman, Countable News
Every year around election season, political prognosticators love to talk about the potential drama that would arise if an election were to be thrown to the Electoral College. What exactly is the Electoral College, though, and why might it play an important role in this year’s presidential race?
Origin of the Electoral College
The Electoral College is a temporary group of electors who vote for the president. Technically, these electors — not the American people directly — vote for president. In modern elections, the first candidate to receive 270 out of the 538 total electoral votes wins the White House.
This system was developed at the 1787 Constitutional Convention after many months of contentious debate. On one side, some contended that Congress should pick the president; others wanted a democratic popular vote. The compromise that resolved this dispute led to the formation of the Electoral College.
How the Electoral College Works
In modern elections, the number of electors each state has roughly correlates to the size of its population. California, the largest state, has the most electors, while sparsely populated states such as Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota have the minimum of three electors.
Generally, states award all their electoral votes to whoever won the popular vote in that state. For example, if a Republican candidate were to win 50.1% of the popular vote in Texas, they would receive all of Texas’ electoral college votes.
Two states — Maine and Nebraska — award their electoral college votes by the proportion of votes received by each candidate. It’s therefore possible for some of each of these states’ electors to be awarded to the Democratic candidate while others are awarded to the Republican candidate.
Winning the presidency while losing the popular vote
Because U.S. residents and, by extension, electoral college votes, aren’t evenly distributed across the country, it’s possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but still lose the Electoral College.
This very situation has happened multiple times in the 21st century alone. Two of the last five elections were won by candidates who had fewer popular votes than their opponents:
- In 2016, Republican candidate Donald Trump had almost three million fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, but Trump won the Electoral College and, therefore, the presidency.
- In 2000, Republican candidate George W. Bush had nearly half-a-million fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate Al Gore, but Bush won the Electoral College with 271 electoral votes and therefore won the presidency.
In the 19th century, presidents John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison also won the presidencies without winning the popular votes.
The Electoral College in the 2020 Election
There are a few reasons why the Electoral College might play an outsized role in this year’s presidential contest. Past history indicates that President Trump’s path to re-election may well depend on an Electoral College victory despite a popular vote loss. (Recall that, in 2016, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by around 3 million votes.)
Because many states are either solidly red or solidly blue at the presidential level, the path to 270 Electoral College votes is a matter of tricky political chess for both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Each candidate is working to secure their party’s traditional strongholds while also attempting to add “swing states” (states with relatively higher proportions of persuadable voters) to their own columns to reach 270 Electoral College votes.
The future of the Electoral College
Last summer, Oregon became the 16th state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, pledging its electoral votes to the national popular vote winner.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact only goes into effect if laws pass in enough states to represent an electoral majority (i.e., the states joining the coalition must have a combined electoral vote of 270 or above). With Oregon, the total would stand at 196, with 15 states and Washington, D.C., having joined the pact.
If governorships change in the upcoming election, we may see additional states join the compact.
(Image Credit: iStockphoto.com / Keith Lance)
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