2004-10-29 / Columnists

Why, You Might Ask, Do We Need The Electoral College?

By Howard Schwach


Nobody ever graduated from the Electoral College. In fact, it is one of the most misunderstood entities in our history.

Not that many people cared very much. Until the last election, that is, when George Bush became the President of the United States despite the fact that Al Gore got more votes.

What is the Electoral College, why do we need it and how did we get it in the first place?

Follow the bouncing ball:

Under the United States Constitution, Article II, Section 1.2, “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress; but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an Office of Trust and Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

Today, there are 538 Electors in the Electoral College, meaning that 270 votes are necessary for a candidate to be elected.

The Presidential Electors meet after the general election and cast their ballots for president and vice president.

Why the Electors and not the general public?

There were a number of reasons that have been debated ever since the Constitution was ratified in 1787.

The Founding Fathers did not trust the electorate. The men who voted on the Constitution believed that a small group of elite men would exercise discretion in their vote and not necessarily be bound by the public vote. This was, in a sense, their buffer against the mob.

Electors are not pledged to vote for the candidate of their party, and they nearly always do so. Today, the vote of the Electoral College is largely a formality.

There may have been other forces at play in the late 1700’s in Philadelphia as well.

Those who attended the Constitutional Convention from the small states were concerned that their states would be gobbled up and controlled by the larger states.

That is one reason for the bicameral legislature, where each state’s representatives in the House is decided by population and each state’s representation in the Senate is two, regardless of size and population.

The Electoral College was a compromise credited to Pennsylvania farmer James Wilson, who thought that the electoral system would provide protection to small states. It has not worked out exactly that way, but the college continues today. Now, the Electoral College gives more power to the “swing states” than to anybody else.

The framer’s vision of how this might work in real life was immediately overtaken by the growth of national parties and of tickets. There was an electoral vote tie in 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The House gave the election to Jefferson.

An 1804 amendment changed the process but allowed the idea of the Electoral College to carry on.

Since then, there have been no more ties. In 1824, the election was decided in the house. Four other presidents, including Bush in 2000, lost the popular vote but were elected by the College.

Those who oppose the Electoral College, and they are legion, say that the popular vote should be the determinant of who wins the election, that the Electoral College is elitist and unfair.

Many who live in small states, however, continue to argue that the College gives them electoral power far beyond the number of inhabitants and should remain.

In all but two states, there is a winner-take-all rule that says that all of the state’s electoral vote have to go to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state. There is a move, however, to apportion the Electoral Vote so that each candidate gets the electoral votes equal to his or her portion of the popular vote.

That idea has not gained much traction in individual states.

New York State, with 31 votes was once the state with the most electoral votes. Now, it is behind California (55 votes), Texas (33 votes) and only slightly ahead of Florida (27 votes).

The general election is November 2. On December 13, electors meet in each of the state capitols to place their votes. Those votes must reach the President of the Senate by December 22. On January 8, 2005, Congress meets in joint session to announce the winner.

It will take a Constitutional Amendment with 2/3 of the state legislatures agreeing, to change the Constitution to do away with the Electoral College and make the popular vote premier, and that is unlikely to happen.

Until then, this might be another year that we look at the numbers in the popular vote and they do not add up to an elected president.

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