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DAVID JOHNSON: Just what the heck is the U.S. Electoral College?

David Johnson
David Johnson

“So, what’s the United States Electoral College and what’s it for?”

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked this question by concerned people following the current U.S. presidential election and wondering about how a presidential candidate can win the White House while losing the America-wide popular vote.

I’ve also heard from people worried about what might happen in the days and weeks after this vote and whether President Donald Trump might be able to cling to power even if he has been roundly defeated on election night.

So, in the lead-up to America Votes, Nov. 3, here’s a little primer on one of the strangest elements of the United States Constitution, the Electoral College.

This college goes all the way back to the American constitution of 1787 and it was a compromise between those “founding fathers” who wanted the American president chosen by “the people” (or, more accurately, those wealthy white males with the right to vote) in a “democratic” election, and those more conservative constitutionalists who wanted the president selected by a majority of congressional representatives.

The compromise was an “Electoral College,” a group of men, supposedly worldly, wealthy and intelligent, selected by each state during a presidential election, who would then meet in Washington some weeks after the presidential election to determine which presidential candidate was the best man to occupy the White House.

And over time, as American politics evolved in the 19th century, the major parties would each select slates of state Electors who would be duty-bound to vote for their party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates should they win the popular vote in their state.

The Electoral College also had an important federalist component to it. In a country with a variety of states, some with huge populations and other with much smaller populations relative to the national total, the College was designed to ensure that presidential candidates had to compete nation-wide and not just in the most populous states.

This college goes all the way back to the American constitution of 1787 and it was a compromise between those “founding fathers” who wanted the American president chosen by “the people” (or, more accurately, those wealthy white males with the right to vote) in a “democratic” election, and those more conservative constitutionalists who wanted the president selected by a majority of congressional representatives.

We see this effect in the current Electoral College. Right now, the American Electoral College consists of 538 electors. Each state is allowed one elector per federal representative that state possesses in the United States Congress – so one for each member of the U.S. Senate and one for each representative in the U.S. Congress. The District of Columbia is also entitled to three electors.

So, the more populous the state, the larger number of electors. California currently possesses the largest number of electors with 55 – one for each Senator and 53 for their congressional districts. The other big states are Texas with 38 electors and New York and Florida with 29 each.

To win the White House, a presidential candidate, and his or her vice-presidential running-mate has to win 270 or more electoral college votes. This means they have to win some populous states but also a fair number of smaller states, meaning that candidates for the White House have to campaign across the country and they have to focus on key “swing states,’ those that might tilt toward one party or the other on election night.

This is why states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and even North Carolina and Georgia are so important to each party in this election.

As we saw in 2016, it’s perfectly possible to win the White House without winning the national popular vote. Donald Trump won that election even though he trailed Hillary Clinton in the overall popular vote by some 2.7 million ballots, votes for Clinton piled up in California and New York.

And one more point to muddy the waters. Each state legislature and governor have the constitutional right to determine their slate of electors. It’s become a constitutional norm that electors will vote for the persons who have won the presidential election in their state. But what if the validity of that state’s presidential election is challenged? What if Donald Trump claims that the vote in various states has been “rigged” against him by a variety of corrupt practices and millions of “fake” mail-in ballots?

The U.S constitution still allows state legislators and governors to select their own slate of electors in such circumstances and to overrule the results of the actual vote on Nov. 3 and the days after. These officials can refuse to count “questionable” ballots.

So, look to see Trump play this explosive political card in the days after this election. America will be in for a rough ride. Trump, however, cannot do this alone. He will need the support of numerous state legislatures and governors. And he will likely need the blessing of the United States Supreme Court. The future of American democracy will rest with these officials.

Dr. David Johnson, Ph.D., teaches political science at Cape Breton University

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