Friday, December 9, 2016

What is the Electoral College?

For only the fifth time in US history (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, 2016) the candidate who received the most popular votes will not be elected President of the United States. Why is this? Because the US doesn’t elect Presidents by popular vote, but by a process known as the Electoral College. Whichever candidate wins a majority in the Electoral College becomes President regardless of the popular vote. Although Clinton is ahead in the national popular vote, Trump has won the  popular vote in enough states to win 306 electoral votes. Which is much more than the 270 needed to win. 

[Here you can see the popular vote totals nationwide and broken down by state. These numbers are compiled by David Wasserman an editor with The Cook Political Report.]
Meeting of the Ohio Electoral College in 2012. This photo is in the public domain.

Article II Section 1 of the US Constitution says: “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...”  

Since 1832, all states except one began allowing their electors to be chosen by popular vote (South Carolina began in 1868).If you voted on November 8th you weren’t actually voting for a Presidential candidate, instead you were voting on which electors will vote for President on behalf of the state. 

Donald Trump won the popular vote in Texas, therefore electors chosen by the Texas Republican Party will be voting in the Electoral College. If Hillary Clinton had won Texas, then electors chosen by the Texas Democratic Party would have been attending the Electoral College.  

Each state is guaranteed a minimum of three votes in the Electoral College, because each state has two Senators and at least one Representative. States with larger populations get more votes because they have a greater number of Representatives. Texas has 38 votes.

The Presidential election of 2016 hasn’t actually happened yet. The members of the Electoral College will vote on December 19th. On that day the electors will gather in their state capitals and write down their choice for President and Vice President. They are supposed to vote for whoever won the popular vote in their state. However, they don’t have to. Some (but not all) states have penalties for electors who don’t follow the popular vote of their state. Occasionally, there are faithless electors who don’t vote the way they are supposed to. However, there have never been enough faithless electors to change the outcome of an election. A Texas Elector has made news recently saying that he will not vote for Donald Trump. 

On January 6th, 2017 the ballots from the Electors will be sent to the President of the Senate (who is also the current Vice President of the US Joe Biden) and they will be counted before a joint session of Congress. 

The library has several books about the Electoral College if you want to learn more:

After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College edited by John C. Fortier
Proposals for Presidential Election Reform: National Popular Vote and Electoral College Options by Maureen Stone
Taming the Electoral College by Robert W. Bennett
Who Will Be the Next President: A Guide to U.S. Presidential Election System by Alexander S. Belenky
Wrong Winner: The Coming Debacle in the Electoral College by David W. Abbott and James P. Levine

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