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the Electoral College


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The Electoral College was established in Article II, Section I, of the United States Constitution, and was later modified by the 12th and 23rd Amendments, which clarified the process.


When U.S. citizens vote for President and Vice President every election year, ballots show the names of the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, although they are actually electing a slate of "electors" that represent them in each state. The electors from every state combine to form the Electoral College.


Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. senators (always two) plus the number of its U.S. House representatives (which may change each decade according to the size of each state's population as determined in the census). See list of state populations and respective electoral votes


Each political party with a candidate on the ballot designates its own set of electors for each state, matching the number of electors they appoint with the number of electoral votes allotted to the state. This usually occurs at the state party conventions. Electors are typically strong and loyal supporters of their political party, but can never be a U.S. senator or representative. Electors are also generally free agents, as only 29 states require electors to vote as they have pledged, and many constitutional scholars believe those requirements would not stand in a court challenge.


After the election, by statutes in 48 states and the District of Columbia, the party that wins the most votes in that state appoints all of the electors for that state. This is known as a winner-take-all or unit rule allocation of electors, which became the norm around the nation by the 1830's. Currently, the only exceptions to the unit rule are Maine and Nebraska.


By federal statute the electors for each state are required to cast their votes in mid-December, after which the votes are sealed and sent to the president of the senate. Though the public votes for the party as a whole, the electors cast individual votes on separate ballots for president and vice president.


This has become important in several elections where electors voted for candidates other than those they were pledged to.

See which states have legal control over their electors


On January 6 following the election year, the president of the U.S. senate opens all of the sealed envelopes containing the electoral votes and reads them aloud. To be elected as president or vice president, a candidate must have an absolute majority (50%, plus one vote) of the electoral votes for that position.


A majority is never guaranteed within the Electoral College. An election with no Electoral College majority could occur in two ways; if two candidates split the total of electoral votes evenly (with 538 electoral votes as of 2005, a tie would mean a split of 269-269) or if three or more candidates receive electoral votes.


If no presidential candidate obtains a majority of the electoral votes, the decision is deferred to the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives selects the president, choosing among the top three candidates, and the Senate selects the vice president, choosing between the top two candidates. In the House selection, each state receives only one vote and an absolute majority of the states (26) is required to elect the President. (In this situation, Washington, DC would lose the voting power given to it by the 23rd Amendment since it does not have the same congressional representation given to the states).


However, a majority winner is not guaranteed in the Congress either. The states could feasibly split their votes equally between 2 candidates (25 state votes each) or the votes could be split between three candidates in such a way that no candidate receives a majority.


Also, since every state only gets one vote, the representatives from each state must come to a decision on which candidate to support in the House. A state with an equal number of representatives supporting the competing parties would not be able to cast its vote unless one representative agreed to vote for the opposing side.


If a majority is not reached (for president) within the House by January 20 (the day the president and vice president are sworn in), the elected vice president serves as president until the House is able to make a decision. If the vice president has not been elected either, the sitting speaker of the House serves as acting president until the Congress is able to make a decision. If a president has been selected but no vice president has been selected by January 20, the president then appoints the vice president, pending approval by Congress.

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Concerns With The Electoral College


Many observers believe the Electoral College introduces complications and potential problems into our political system.


Grossly unequal distribution of campaign resources





Unequal voting power depending on where you live


The Electoral College gives disproportionate voting power to the states, favoring the smaller states with more electoral votes per person.


For instance, each individual vote in Wyoming counts nearly four times as much in the Electoral College as each individual vote in Texas. This is because Wyoming has 3 electoral votes for a population of 493,782 and Texas has 32 electoral votes for a population of over 20 million people. By dividing the population by electoral votes, we can see that Wyoming has an "elector" for every 165,000 people and Texas has an "elector" for every 652,000 people.


The small states were given additional power to prevent politicians from only focusing on issues which affect the larger states. The fear was that without this power, politicians would completely ignore small states and only focus on big population centers.


Ironically, there is a study that concludes that larger states are actually at an advantage in the Electoral College. Because almost all states give all their electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes within that state, candidates must win whole states in order to win the presidency. Naturally, candidates tend to concentrate resources on the largest payoffs, the states which can provide the greatest number of electoral votes.


For a history of the development of the Electoral College, see William C. Kimberling's essay, A Brief History of the Electoral College . Kimberling is the Deputy Director of the FEC's Office of Election Administration. This document provides a historical interpretation of the Electoral College.


The winner-take-all method of distributing electoral votes


The Electoral College favors the smaller states with disproportionate voting power. Advocates of the system say that this uneven power forces politicians to pay attention to smaller states, which would otherwise be ignored.


Despite its intentions, the Electoral College does not encourage politicians to campaign in every state.


Some states are still excluded from the campaign; these are not necessarily the small states, but rather they are the states that are not viewed as competitive.


Since all but two states allocate their votes via a winner-take-all method, there is no reason for a candidate to campaign in a state that clearly favors one candidate. As an example, Democratic candidates have little incentive to spend time in solidly Republican states, like Texas, even if many Democrats live there. Conversely, Republican candidates have little incentive to campaign in solidly Democratic states, like Massachusetts, especially when they know that states like Florida and Michigan are toss-ups.


The winner-take-all rule also leads to lower voter turnout in states where one party is dominant, because each individual vote will be overwhelmed by the majority and will not, in effect, "count" if the winner takes all the electoral votes.


Unbound electors


In 21 states, electors are not obligated by law to vote for the candidate for whom they were selected.


In the 29 states where electors are obligated by law or pledge, they can often still vote against their party without being replaced. Some states issue only minimal fines as punishment. Other states instigate criminal charges varying from a simple misdemeanor to a 4th degree felony.


This inconsistency allows for discrepancies in our electoral system. The electors from nearly half the states can vote however they wish, regardless of the popular will of the state.


In the founding of our nation, the Electoral College was established to prevent the people from making "uneducated" decisions. The founders feared uneducated public opinion and designed the Electoral College as a layer of insulation from the direct voice of the masses.


There is no reason, in this modern day, to assign this responsibility to a set of individual electors. Thousands of votes can and have been violated by an individual elector, choosing to act on his or her own behalf instead of on the behalf of the people.


Since the founding of the Electoral College, 157 electors have not cast their votes for the candidates they were designated to represent.


House of Representatives can choose the president


If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the presidential vote is deferred to the House of Representatives and the vice presidential vote is deferred to the Senate. This could easily lead to a purely partisan battle, instead of an attempt to discover which candidate the citizens really prefer.


If the Senate and the House of Representative reflect different majorities, meaning that they select members of opposing parties, the offices of president and vice president could be greatly damaged. This potential opposition in the presidential office would not be good for the stability of the country or the government.


Enforcement of a two-party system


Because of our two-party system, voters often find themselves voting for the "lesser of two evils," rather than a candidate they really feel would do the best job. The Electoral College inadvertently reinforces this two party system, where third parties cannot enter the race without being tagged as "spoilers."


Since most states distribute their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, a smaller party has no chance to gain support without seeming to take this support from one of the major parties. Few people will support a party that never wins, especially when they are supporting that party at the possible expense of their least favorite candidate taking power (as happened to Nader/Gore supporters in 2000 and Perot/Bush supporters in 1992).


Presidency can be won without a majority of the popular vote


As the 2000 election demonstrated, it is possible for a President to be elected without winning the popular vote. Nor was the Bush/Gore election the first time a presidential candidate has won the presidency while someone else claimed a plurality of the votes cast. Andrew Jackson and Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in 1824 and 1876 respectively, only to see someone else walk into the White House.


An even more common occurrence is for a presidential candidate to win both the presidency and the popular vote without actually winning a majority of all ballots cast. This has happened 16 times since the founding of the Electoral College, most recently in 2000. In every one of these elections, more than half of the voters voted against the candidate who was elected.


With such a winner-take-all system, it is impossible to tell which candidate the people really prefer, especially in a close race.

Edited by Doug White
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