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The Electoral College vs. the Popular Vote

Chasing Freedom – Virginia is dedicated to helping Virginians understand our elections. This information is not for those of you who already know, its for you to share with others who don’t.

The conversation regarding a popular vote persists so we are providing here an authoritative understanding of why we use the electoral college system and why is works.

The bottom line is, the fifty States individually hold elections to determine the person that State feels best represents their State. So, essentially, 50 separate popular votes, by State. Each State then gets a number of elector votes to be tallied together with the other States to pick the person who represents the most States, but not necessarily the most people. 

According to American Heritage, “the Electoral College works as follows: On Election Day, citizens in the 50 states and the District of Columbia go to the polls and vote for a presidential/vice-presidential ticket. Within each state, the candidate who wins the most votes gets to appoint a certain number of presidential electors, the number being equal to that state’s total seats in the Senate and House of Representatives (the District of Columbia gets three electoral votes). This winner-take-all feature, which has caused most of the trouble through the years, is not mandated by the Constitution, but it is virtually universal; only Maine and Nebraska have laws that provide for their electoral votes to be split. In fact, the Constitution permits states to choose their electors by any means they choose, and in the early days many of them left the choice to their legislatures. Since the 1830s, however, winner-take-all popular elections have been all but obligatory.” (American Heritage: The Electoral College)

 “Soon after the nation-wide election, the electors assemble in their states and go through the formality of casting their votes for the candidates from the party that appointed them. Each state reports its totals to Congress, and in early January the Vice President opens and counts the votes in the presence of both houses. Whichever candidates receive a majority of the electoral votes are declared President- and Vice President-elect.” If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes the House of Representatives determines the President. (American Heritage: The Electoral College)

 According to American Heritage, “With a winner-take-all Electoral College, candidates tailor their messages and direct their spending to swing states and ignore the others, even when there are lots of votes to be had.”

In essence, the more populous states are less important to candidates because it is more important to campaign in swing states where the state electorates can be moved from one candidate to another. The more states a candidate wins, the better their chances of a victory.

States that are strongly leaning toward one party or another (not swingable) are not a priority for Presidential candidates because their electoral vote outcome is assumed. (American Heritage: The Electoral College)

By American Heritage account “Through all the analysis, reform proposals keep coming. They generally fall into three classes: a straightforward nationwide popular vote; election by districts, with the Electoral College retained but each congressional district choosing its own elector (and, in most such schemes, the statewide winner getting a bonus of two); and proportional representation, with electoral votes determined by each candidate’s percentage of the popular vote in a given state.” But they also point out that these changes to our voting process come with their own problems. And they also point out that it is very difficult to enact any of these changes due to the extreme requirement “to pass a constitutional amendment—a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress plus approval by three-quarters of the states.” (American Heritage: The Electoral College)

Regarding a direct popular election “there’s the question of what to do if no candidate receives a majority. Would there be a runoff, which would make the campaign season last even longer and might encourage third parties? Would the top vote-getter always be the winner—a system that could elect a candidate opposed by a majority of citizens? Would we mystify voters by asking for second and third choices?” (American Heritage: The Electoral College)

Regarding a nationwide election “would require a nationwide electoral board, with all the rules, forms, and inspectors that go along with it. Would states be allowed to set different times for opening and closing their polls? Would North Dakota be allowed to continue to have no form of voter registration, as it does now? Would a state seeking more influence be allowed to lower its voting age below 18? Then there is the potential discussed above for stolen or suppressed votes. Combine all these problems with the inevitable effect of concentrating candidates’ time, resources, and money on populous areas, and the case for a small state to support direct election.” (American Heritage: The Electoral College)

And election by districts “it would replace 51 separate races with about 480. Swing states would lose their all-or-nothing leverage, so candidates might concentrate on major population centers even more than they do now. (Under the present system, each new election gives a different group of swing states their moment in the spotlight, whereas with any other system, the big states would always get the bulk of the attention.) The effects of gerrymandering would be amplified, and third-party candidates would find it easier to win a single district than an entire state. Also, the small-state advantage would remain (and in fact be reinforced, since in most cases—all the time for the three-vote minnows—they would continue to function as units) while the big-state advantage from winner-take-all would vanish.” (American Heritage: The Electoral College)

Regarding a proportional division of electors would be “combining all the disadvantages of a direct popular vote with none of the advantages. Under this method, if a state has 10 electoral votes and Candidate A wins 53.7 percent of the popular vote in that state, then Candidate A is credited with 5.37 electoral votes. In essence, proportional division amounts to a direct popular vote, except that the votes of small-state residents are given added weight.” (American Heritage: The Electoral College)

While we total up the popular vote for the Presidential candidates on television, nowhere in the Constitution does it place any value or importance on this total number of votes cast across the entire 50 States. Because of the way our political system is organized we actually hold 50 separate elections for President. Each State then determines how many electoral votes it is going to cast in favor of a specific candidate.

Because so many people believe the President’s job is to represent all of the American people, the electorate (us) want to know how many people voted for him or her across the entire country.

But a better understanding of how our system works would be that the President actually is representing the States. Each state is electing the man or woman who will best support that States individual goals and desires from the President. In the case of the 2016 election, President Trump was elected by more individual States than Clinton.

(American Heritage: The Electoral College: How It Got That Way and Why We’re Stuck With It, https://www.americanheritage.com/electoral-college-how-it-got-way-and-why-were-stuck-it, accessed 3/18/2019)




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