What is the “Electoral College”?

The US Presidential election will be decided between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and an outrageous Republican candidate (to whom I will draw no further attention, even by naming).

Oddly, however, it will be decided “in Florida”, “in Ohio”, perhaps even “in Utah”. What’s that about?

When the United States was formed, even as a 13-state union, it was huge in terms of area. At the time, travelling across it took literally weeks. Additionally, it was exactly what it said on the tin – a union of states, not a single nation-state.

It was governed from Washington DC (from where I am writing this piece, as it happens), which did and does not form part of any state and was established specifically for the purpose of providing a neutral setting where representatives of states could meet and discuss issues of mutual interest.

It is for this reason that the United States has a “Congress” not a “Parliament”; representatives of each state come together “in congress”; the “congress” continues to refer to the notion that it is a law-making and scrutinising body representing a union of states rather than a single national legislature.

Each state is represented in the House of Representatives (usually referred to simply as “the House”) in congress by a number in proportion to its population. The smallest states (with populations only in the hundreds of thousands) have one Representative, working up to the largest, currently California (now nearly 40 million), with 53. Where a state elects more than one, it does so from single districts (thus small states can form a single district; whereas California is split into 53); elections for all 435 Representatives take place every two years.

Additionally, each state is represented in the Senate by two Senators each regardless of size (for a convenient total of 100, elected for staggered six-year terms). So the smallest state, Wyoming, adds two Senators to its single Representative to send three delegates to meet “in congress”, and California adds two to its 53 to send a total of 55. Thus, overall, smaller states are slightly over-represented.

Then there was the issue of how to elect the overall President (and Vice President) of the union. This, as with Congress, had to be done by states representing the view of their population in Washington, DC. The body set up to do this is referred to as the Electoral College, which meets early in January every fourth year. It consists of a delegation of each state totalling its representation in Congress – thus, for example, Wyoming gets three delegates and California gets 55. Washington, DC itself has also received a delegation of three since 1965, thus bringing the total to 435+100+3=538.

The election of these delegates takes place well in advance, for the historical reason that it once took delegates weeks to get to Washington, DC! Each state now elects its delegates by universal suffrage (this once varied), although exactly how it does this may vary as electoral law is determined by the states themselves.

Of the 50 states, 48 use a “winner takes all” system, meaning that all its delegates are elected to cast their vote in the Electoral College for the same candidate. Thus, all three of Wyoming’s electors must vote for the winner in Wyoming; as must all 55 of California’s. Note that the winning ticket does not need a majority of the votes cast in that state, just a plurality; so if Hillary Clinton scores 49% in California, some unspeakable candidate 41%, and two others 5% each, then Hillary Clinton still receives the votes of all 55 of California’s delegates.

Maine (itself a breakaway state from Massachusetts) and Nebraska (which is in any case unique in not generally having a party system in its local state politics) form exceptions, binding just two of their delegates (equivalent to their Senate representation) by the overall state-wide result; the remainder are elected individually by district (i.e. in line with how their Representatives are elected) and bound by the district’s result. Usually, in practice, this still results in all delegates from each state being on the same ticket, but not always (as recently as 2008, one Nebraska district voted for Obama while the others plus the state as a whole chose McCain).

Most states make it a legal requirement for its delegates to vote for both President and Vice President according to the ticket they were on. However, there is the occasional “faithless elector” (for example, one delegate bound to vote for Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000 abstained in protest at the overall outcome).

Although candidates require only a plurality in any individual state to win the votes of that state’s delegation in the Electoral College, they do in fact require an outright majority in the Electoral College (i.e. 270 or more out of 538) to be elected. There is potential for a 269-269 tie; and also for a third candidate to win enough delegates’ votes to force even the leading candidate below 270 (though no third candidate has won any Electoral College votes since 1968).

This creates a potentially serious quirk. In the event that no candidate attains an outright majority, which candidate has the most votes in the Electoral College is theoretically irrelevant – the House of Representatives must meet to elect the President, and the Senate to elect the Vice President.

This, of course, does mean there can be occasions where one candidate receives the most votes from the electorate, but another receives a majority in the Electoral College and is thus elected. This has happened four times, most recently in 2000. Here, out of interest, is why I think that remains a no bad thing!

That, then, is the Electoral College – a means of electing a President of a union by votes case by representatives of states of that union, with smaller states slightly over-represented so their interests are not simply overridden by the larger states or even the big conurbations. It is a controversial method of electing a Head of State, but it has stood the test of time – and probably will for some time yet.


5 thoughts on “What is the “Electoral College”?

  1. MT says:

    “When the United States was formed …It was governed from Washington DC …

    Actually, ’twas New York.

  2. MT says:

    “The body set up to do this is referred to as the Electoral College, which meets early in January every fourth year.”

    Does it actually meet? I thought that was why losing presidential candidates “conceded”: in order that it need not meet.

    I don’t recall ever seeing or reading any coverage of the college actually convening.

  3. The Electoral College does meet, but remotely – electors remain in their respective states and cast their votes from there.

  4. Thanks for the correction.

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