Why an ‘Electoral College’ Chooses the U.S. President
(Bloomberg) -- Americans have the longest, most expensive and arguably most complex system of electing a head of state in the world. After all the debates, caucuses, primaries and conventions, the person who gets the most votes can still lose by falling short in one or more “swing states” -- as happened most recently in 2016, when Republican Donald Trump won the White House. It’s a system that baffles non-Americans and many Americans as well, and some critics say it’s time to let voters pick their leader directly.
1. Don’t voters already do that?
No. The president is selected via the quirky mechanism called the Electoral College, created by the nation’s founders. Voters in each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, choose as many “electors” as they have members of Congress -- three to 55, depending on population. Since the total number of electors is 538, the candidate who secures a simple majority, or 270, wins the presidency.
2. How does the Electoral College work?
When Americans select a presidential candidate, they are technically voting for a slate of electors who have pledged to support that choice. The role of the electors, who are meeting Monday in their state capitals, is generally to rubber-stamp the result of their state’s popular vote. (Electors technically retain an element of free will, but only on rare occasions does a so-called faithless elector break with his or her party, and states can fine or remove them for doing so.) All but two states have adopted a “winner-take-all” system that awards all the electoral votes to the top vote-getter.
3. Why does the U.S. operate this way?
Some framers of the Constitution wanted Congress to elect the president. Others said state legislators or governors should pick. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who initially wanted the president to be directly elected by the people, proposed the Electoral College as a compromise. The notion was that electors would serve as informed intermediaries between the masses and their government and have independence to break from the popular vote in their states when they deemed that necessary. Endorsing this system in a 1788 letter, Alexander Hamilton said it guaranteed that American presidents would be “characters preeminent for ability and virtue” and not merely adept at “the little arts of popularity.”
4. Who benefits from this process?
By design, the electoral system amplifies the importance of small states by guaranteeing all states -- even sparsely populated Wyoming -- no less than three electors each. It also benefits the handful of “swing” or “battleground” states viewed as most competitive in any given election. They receive disproportionate attention from candidates because, under their winner-take-all systems, even the narrowest popular-vote victory is rewarded with the entire electoral haul.
5. How can the leading vote-getter lose the election?
Consider what happened in 2016. Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton collected the most votes, scoring huge margins of victory in the populous so-called “blue” states of California, New York and Illinois, where Trump had done little campaigning. Trump assembled his winning majority of electoral votes in part by edging out Clinton in Florida, a traditional battleground, and in the historically Democratic-leaning states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump collected all 75 electoral votes in those four states. In all, he won 30 states to Clinton’s 20.
6. How often has the popular vote winner not been elected?
It’s happened twice in the last six presidential elections, in 2000 and 2016. Before that it had happened only three times, in 1824, 1876 and 1888. Following the 2000 contest, when Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore after a weeks-long recount, there was a surge of interest (generally among Democrats, who had lost) in changing the system to make the popular vote decisive. That push was renewed after 2016.
7. How close has the U.S. come to changing the system?
In 1969, the House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular election. But the initiative died in the Senate. (That vote came the year after a presidential election in which the third-party candidacy of segregationist George Wallace threatened to keep Republican Richard Nixon, the eventual winner, and Democrat Hubert Humphrey below the 270 needed to win.) The Senate considered the amendment again in 1979, three years after Democrat Jimmy Carter’s narrow defeat of Republican Gerald Ford. The 51-48 vote was far short of the two-thirds majority needed to send a proposed constitutional amendment for consideration by the states.
8. Who’s trying to change it now?
9. What does Trump say?
In 2012, after Republican Mitt Romney lost his bid to unseat Democratic President Barack Obama, Trump called the Electoral College “a disaster for a democracy.” As president in 2019, he said it’s “far better for the U.S.A.” because it makes candidates “go to many states to win” and prevents big cities from “running the country.”
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