What It All Means:
The Mysterious Workings of the Electoral College

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Every time there is a close presidential election, there's a great rumbling across America. What is the electoral college and why don't we just cast our own darn votes directly? The question has been asked again and again — only to be forgotten by the time the next election cycle rolls around.

This year, of course, the clamoring has reached epic proportions. With the election centering around a few voters in one state, there is the distinct possibility that one candidate could win the popular vote and yet lose the election.

If you've been standing by and merely watching the fray because you don't feel you have enough of the facts to participate, your pacifist days are over. Here is the ammunition for the water cooler battles ahead:

What is the electoral college?

First of all, it's not really a college.

During presidential election years, each state party chooses a group of electors (usually party loyalists) who've pledged their votes to that party's presidential candidate. This may come as a surprise, but on the first Tuesday in November, when we all head off to the polls, we don't vote for directly for the presidential candidate. We vote for the slate of electors who go on to vote at the electoral college. So, for example, because Governor Bush's slate won the plurality of the vote in Texas, his group of electors will represent that state. And in December, the winning slates gather for state meetings, where the votes for president are officially cast.

Can the electors change their minds?

In some cases, yes. Only about half the states legally require their electors to vote for their assigned candidate; the others are, ostensibly, free to change their votes. In addition, the penalties for breaking the rules are so minimal as to be virtually meaningless. However, only about five electors — who are described as "faithless" — have ever done that, though most of those have occurred in the last 30 years.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. Nebraska and Maine use a proportional vote system. Two of each state's electors are chosen by the statewide vote, while the remaining members are determined by the popular vote within each congressional district.

How did the electoral college come about?

It was devised by the founders as a means of resolving two concerns. First was to get away from the parliamentary model, where the elected representatives vote for the chief executive (as, for example, happens in Britain, where the majority party votes to select the prime minister). It was their belief that appointing electors to represent each state was more democratic than allowing Congress to elect the president. Second, at the time, communication and travel was much more difficult than today, and voting for delegates at a local level appeared easier and less open to corruption than counting every popular vote at a national level.

Does every state get the same number of electors?

No. Sorry, South Dakota. Each state has as many electors as it has U.S. senators (always two) and U.S. representatives (which depends on census population counts). Each state, therefore, has a minimum of three electors, with California leading the pack with 54. The District of Columbia has three electors, the same as the least populous states.

Can two candidates split one state's electoral votes?

Nope. Except in Maine and Nebraska, the electoral votes operate on a winner-take-all system. That's why the candidates spend so much time and money campaigning in electoral gold mines like California, Texas and New York — and relatively little time in Montana.

Doesn't this system mean a candidate could win the popular vote and still not become president?

It sure does. In fact, that's happened at least twice in American history before now. In 1876 and 1888 Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, respectively, became president without winning the popular vote. The same thing could manifest itself this year if Al Gore loses the electoral vote but wins the popular vote.

What happens if the electoral votes are evenly split?

We head to Capitol Hill, where the U.S. House of Representatives would choose the President (each state delegation casting one vote) and the Senate would pick a vice president (each senator votes). Because the Republicans control the House, that would almost certainly result in a victory for Bush. The Senate situation is more tantalizing. If, as seems likely, the upper chamber is split 50-50 between the parties, the deciding vote is in the hands of the president of the Senate — who is none other than Vice President Al Gore.

So why don't we just cast our own darn votes?

Defenders of the current system argue that an individual vote would favor voter-rich urban centers and leach power from rural areas. Besides, many maintain, we've always done it this way, and nobody wants to change the Constitution if we don't absolutely have to.

Critics, on the other hand, argue the electoral college is at best an outdated relic, and at worst a looming political disaster. If more than a simple plurality of voters in Texas vote for Bush, every vote over the plurality is a "wasted vote," in political science terms. Why shouldn't those votes count for Bush in the general election?

What does our current presidential stalemate mean for the electoral college?

It means more people are aware of the college's existence and that more Americans understand the electoral process. It also likely to result in a groundswell of support for its abolition, as voters more clearly understand the potential for the winner of the popular vote to lose the electoral vote. In fact, polls in recent years have consistently shown that a majority of voters favor its demise.

Will the electoral college exist 20 years from now?

Before the current campaign, the answer would probably have been yes. Outside of academia and certain political circles, there has been no sense of urgency to change the system. However, if it turns out that the candidate with fewer popular votes wins the election, there will be considerable pressure to amend the Constitution.