194. The US Electoral College: a From Scratch guide

new-england-leaves-in-fall-by-roadsofstoneThis longest race is nearly run at last – and as autumn 2008 falls inexorably into the arms of winter, the US election beckons with its promise of history in the making.

Because by the time the October New England leaves lie buried under fresh January snows, the new course of our free world will have been decided.

And after months of Primaries, Conventions and Rallies — the millions of words from Hillary, Barack and McCain, and thousands of column inches on Sarah, Joe and even Joe the Plumber — how, exactly, will America elect her new President?

We’ve heard about the battleground states — the races for Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. But surely, every vote counts, right across the country?

This week, I’m indebted to Ella, our long-standing America correspondent, for writing this timely From Scratch guide to the US Electoral College.

new-hampshire-snow-by-atonal-at-flickrdotcomAll across the lower 48, Hawaii, Alaska and the farthest reaches of the Upper East Side, America decides.

And this is how it works.

* * * * *

Click for www.electoral-vote.com

On November 4, we Americans will be voting for a new president in no less than 51 separate elections — one in each state and the District of Columbia.

On that day we won’t elect the new president, though; that won’t happen until December 15, when the electors, chosen in the primaries and by state party meetings, gather in their respective state capitals to cast their votes.

And the president won’t count as duly elected until those electoral votes are counted in Congress on January 6.

In a nutshell, those three stages define how our Electoral College works.

There are 538 electoral votes, representing the 435 congressional districts that give us our House of Representatives, the 100 Senators and three electoral votes for the District, which is allocated a number no greater than the least populous state, Wyoming. 270 are needed for victory.

To make a confusing system — even for many Americans — even more confusing, not all states allocate them the same way.

Forty-eight states and the District, which has the unique status of “federal enclave”, award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Whichever candidate wins a simple statewide majority gets all the votes.

Maine and Nebraska, however, have chosen — as is their right — to award their electoral votes by majorities in each congressional district.

The Founding Fathers intended the Legislative branch to elect the president. We are represented in the Legislative branch two ways, by state and by population. Senators represent us in the first instance: each state has two. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is apportioned by population, and not by area, so that Alaska, the largest state (587,878 square miles), has one Representative, the same as tiny Vermont (#43 in area with 9,615 square miles).

The number of votes assigned to each state in the Electoral College is equal to the number of senators and representatives. So Alaska and Vermont each have three votes, whilst the most populous state, California, has fifty five (2 + 53).

For point of reference, wales.co.uk measures Wales at just over 8,000 square miles, and statistics at wikipedia.org show the entire UK has 93,800 square miles. England at 50,346 square miles is only about 1,000 square miles larger than New York state, which ranks only #30 for area.

As Ikea says in its American ads, It’s a big country. Somebody has to furnish it.

That’s one reason, albeit simplistic, why we have the staggered voting schedule of the Electoral College. In the 18th Century, travelling on horseback, it took time for the electors to deliver the results of their states’ votes, which were cast by white male landowners.

And so by law, the general election is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and the Electoral College votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.

In the 21st Century, it is politically correct in some circles to portray the Fathers as paternalistic elites whose system was devised to save us from ourselves.

While there is an element of truth to that, the history of the Electoral College and its mechanics is vast — see The Electoral College, US Congressional Apportionment and especially Electoral College history for more detail. I’d also strongly recommend David McCullough’s biography John Adams.

Most Americans think of the Electoral College only once every four years, in the national gnashing of teeth over whether it should continue. I think it should.

Critics point to the fact that the system favors small states, but without it, candidates would focus only on the most populous states, campaigning in others via television ads, email and YouTube.

I believe we have a right to see our candidates up close and they have an obligation to see and meet us. Even with the Electoral College it is possible to win a majority there by winning only 11 states, and anyone who thinks candidates would travel to the other 39 for a national popular vote is idealistic and naive.

This year is a perfect example of why it should be retained. It’s rare to have, as we did with the Democrats, a nomination so closely contested that every state’s primary election matters. Even Puerto Rico was a campaign stop this year. In fact, though, Puerto Rico, in common with Guam and the Virgin Islands, sends delegates to the conventions but their citizens do not vote in November.

Whilst national polls are interesting snapshots of the electorate, the state polls matter more, enabling sites such as FiveThirtyEight to project the Electoral College. Today that site projects Obama with 351.2 electoral votes, a landslide to be sure, but with only 52.3% of the popular vote.

To compare, George HW Bush won 426 electoral votes in his wipeout of Michael Dukakis in 1988. ABC News, one of our respected networks, has just reported the possibility of an electoral disaster for the Republicans, a result which would be reflective of the dynamic estimate shown above.

There is another reason I like the Electoral College: history. Compared with many European countries, America is very young. We haven’t had time to establish many traditions, so it’s good to cherish the positive ones we have.

barack-obama-nashua-new-hampshire-2008And as real proof of electoral history in the making, this year I relish the prospect of electing to the presidency an African American — a man who would not even have been allowed to vote under the Fathers’ traditions of 1776.

a From Scratch guide : : a From Scratch guide : : a From Scratch guide : : a From Scratch guide : : a From Scratch guide : : a From Scratch guide

Related articles:
From Scratch: A letter from London
What history looks like
190. Conventions and rallies – Sarah Palin and the US Open
110. The hands that built America – Houston skylines
173. Lines from the New Hampshire primary
174. The hidden history of Texas – on Buffalo Bayou, Houston, USA

11 responses to “194. The US Electoral College: a From Scratch guide

  1. My God . . . it took all my willpower to get through the explanation! Thank you Ella; I didn’t until now truly appreciate the complexities of the system. It does make one wonder if it isn’t a trifle contrived. Sure there has to be a system that fairly reflects the will of the people – and I can assure you that our own system here in the UK is hopelessly flawed.

    Our own Lib Dems call for one man, one vote, or if you prefer proportional representation. This means that you don’t get the nonsense of moving electoral boundaries (UK) or hanging Chadgate (USA) – or perhaps more accurately, if you do get them they have far less significance. PR is perhaps the only truly democratic system of voting. Sure, it leads to a lot of coalition government, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Currently the ideal cabinet for me would be one made up of the many cross-party talents we have in our parliament instead of one side struggling with crippling economic collapse whilst the others throw rocks and call names.

    What it all adds up to is a confusing system. It’s no wonder Joe Public – plumber or otherwise – is reluctant to vote at times.

    But thanks again for telling us how it all works.
    Now all we need is the right result.

  2. Hello, Sweder. You made me laugh with this:

    My God . . . it took all my willpower to get through the explanation!

    It does seem convoluted, doesn’t it? May I add to the confusion with this tidbit: when the electors vote, they vote separately for president and vice president. That goes back to 1800, when Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied and some sneaks tried to make Burr the president even though Jefferson was the intended candidate for that.

    Proportional representation does make sense and that is what we have in Maine and Nebraska with respect to the electoral college. Thankfully, Florida has done away with the hanging chad ballots, but I’m just crossing my fingers tight for all 51 elections until Nov. 6.

    Dine out on “federal enclave.” I’d guess no more than .01% of Americans know the District’s legal status and most of us who do are current or former residents.

    I’m glad it was helpful!

  3. What the U.S. Constitution says is “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, that the voters may vote and the winner-take-all rule) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, it was necessary to own a substantial amount of property in order to vote, and only 3 states used the winner-take-all rule (awarding all of a state’s electoral vote to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state). Since then, as a result of changes in state laws, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the winner-take-all rule is used by 48 of the 50 states.

  4. The small states are the most disadvantaged of all under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus.

    Small states are almost invariably non-competitive in presidential election. Only 1 of the 13 smallest states are battleground states (and only 5 of the 25 smallest states are battlegrounds).

    Of the 13 smallest states, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska regularly vote Republican, and Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC regularly vote Democratic. These 12 states together contain 11 million people. Because of the two electoral-vote bonus that each state receives, the 12 non-competitive small states have 40 electoral votes. However, the two-vote bonus is an entirely illusory advantage to the small states. Ohio has 11 million people and has “only” 20 electoral votes. As we all know, the 11 million people in Ohio are the center of attention in presidential campaigns, while the 11 million people in the 12 non-competitive small states are utterly irrelevant. Nationwide election of the President would make each of the voters in the 12 smallest states as important as an Ohio voter.

    The fact that the bonus of two electoral votes is an illusory benefit to the small states has been widely recognized by the small states for some time. In 1966, Delaware led a group of 12 predominantly low-population states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania) in suing New York in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that New York’s use of the winner-take-all effectively disenfranchised voters in their states. The Court declined to hear the case (presumably because of the well-established constitutional provision that the manner of awarding electoral votes is exclusively a state decision). Ironically, defendant New York is no longer a battleground state (as it was in the 1960s) and today suffers the very same disenfranchisement as the 12 non-competitive low-population states. A vote in New York is, today, equal to a vote in Wyoming–both are equally worthless and irrelevant in presidential elections.

    The concept of a national popular vote for President is far from being politically “radioactive” in small states, because the small states recognize they are the most disadvantaged group of states under the current system.

    As of 2008, the National Popular Vote bill has been approved by a total of seven state legislative chambers in small states, including one house in Maine and both houses in Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It has been enacted by Hawaii.

  5. To make every vote in every state politically relevant and equal in presidential elections, support the National Popular Vote bill.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Evidence as to how a nationwide presidential campaign would be run can be found by examining the way presidential candidates currently campaign inside battleground states. Inside Ohio or Florida, the big cities do not receive all the attention. And, the cities of Ohio and Florida certainly do not control the outcome in those states. Because every vote is equal inside Ohio or Florida, presidential candidates avidly seek out voters in small, medium, and large towns. The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate in Ohio and Florida already knows–namely that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the state.

    Further evidence of the way a nationwide presidential campaign would be run comes from national advertisers who seek out customers in small, medium, and large towns of every small, medium, and large state. A national advertiser does not write off Indiana or Illinois merely because a competitor makes more sales in those particular states. Moreover, a national advertiser enjoying an edge over its competitors in Indiana or Illinois does not stop trying to make additional sales in those states. National advertisers go after every single possible customer, regardless of where the customer is located.

    The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 21 legislative chambers (one house in CO, AR, ME, NC, and WA, and two houses in MD, IL, HI, CA, MA, NJ, RI, and VT). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring this legislation into effect.

  6. Thank you, Susan, and best of luck with your campaign.

  7. Now my head really hurts . . . : (

  8. Sorry, Sweder… clotted cream will make it feel better. 😉

  9. Thank you, America.

    There’s a lot of pudding to be eaten before the proof behind the rhetoric comes through, but what a start. We, the watching, waiting world, eager as a child on Christmas morning, salute you.

  10. I’ll share warm wishes and congratulations to America this morning.

    Many thanks to Ella for this informative and timely post allowing us to understand the results of the US electoral college

    It’s a historic, and inspiring moment. And how wonderful to wake up with the news that tomorrow begins today.

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