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Electoral College 101

Political science students Taylor Phillips, Dexter Ridgway and Bob Putman explain how presidential elections really work.

What is the Electoral College, and why do we use it to pick our president?

Taylor Phillips: The Electoral College was established by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between the two prevailing factions at the time: those who believed that only qualified citizens (e.g., members of Congress) vote to elect a president, and those who felt that all eligible voters should be allowed to cast ballots for the nation’s highest office. It was designed to give a voice to states with low populations that would lose influence to more populous states via a strict popular vote. However, electors are not members of Congress. A state’s allotment of electors equals the number of members in its Congressional delegation (one for each member in the House of Representatives plus two for the senators). Every state is guaranteed a minimum of three electors, which means that there are 538 electors in the Electoral College. A presidential candidate needs 270 votes to get elected.

This year, the popular vote and the electoral vote were not won by the same candidate. How did that happen?

Dexter Ridgway: Many individuals assume that the United States is a direct democracy, which means that leaders are directly elected by the people. This is not actually true. The U.S. is a representative democracy. Just as we rely on leaders to represent our ideas in Congress, we also rely on leaders to represent our vote for the presidency. The assumption has always been that these leaders we elect (presidential electors) will adequately represent our vote and cast his or hers accordingly. To understand why a candidate can win the popular vote, but lose the Electoral College vote, one must delve deeper into how the Electoral College is comprised.

Taylor mentioned how the Electoral College was created to give a greater voice to states with a low population. The inverse is also true. States with high populations have a lesser voice. For example, Alaska has three electoral votes, meaning that each vote is representative of around 250,000 people. California on the other hand, has the most electoral votes (55), but each one is representative of 700,000 people. A candidate may only appeal to a highly populated area like California or Texas, but still may not be able to collect enough electoral votes to win in the Electoral College. This happened in this recent election with Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by more than 2.6 million, but losing the electoral map by 74 votes. In 2000, George W. Bush narrowly won in Florida, giving him the electoral majority, but still lost the popular vote to Al Gore by 500,000 votes. These can be called “misfire” elections, where the popular-vote winner loses in the Electoral College.

Who are these electors that are going to vote on Dec. 19?

Taylor Phillips: Presidential electors are typically party loyalists. Each party wants to have confidence that these people will reliably vote for the party, because technically, they don’t have to. Almost anyone can be become an elector, provided they are a U.S. citizen of legal voting age (there is a 19-year-old elector in Washington), and not a current federal office holder. However, many electors are former office holders (governors, members of congress, state senators or representatives, etc.), or current party officials. There is no one official way to become an elector, as states are allowed to choose them however they want.

Dexter, you mentioned that electors “technically don’t have to” vote for a certain candidate. This year, we have already seen quite a few electors speaking out about doing just that. Is this unusual?

Dexter Ridgway: We call electors that don’t vote as expected “faithless electors.” There have been a total of 157 faithless electors since the founding of the Electoral College. Historically, faithless electors have acted to make a point by voting against the popular vote. In one instance, a Washington, D.C., elector refused to cast her vote to protest D.C.’s lack of congressional representation. There are currently two individuals, Art Sisneros from Texas and Baoky Vu from Georgia, whom have resigned as electors and will most likely have their positions taken by pro-Trump electors. 29 states have laws prohibiting faithless electors and may punish these individuals through fines or misdemeanors. These laws have not stopped 11 individuals from forming a coalition and coining themselves the “Hamilton Electors.” This group is attempting to persuade 37 Republican electors to reduce Trump’s current 306 electoral lead to 269, putting him right below the 270 needed to win. These electors have also filed lawsuits in three states with electorally binding laws: California, Washington and Colorado. These lawsuits are attempting to overturn these laws and allow for electors to vote for whom they choose.

If electors aren’t bound to the Nov. 8 election results, are those results in any jeopardy? Could we realistically have a different president-elect after Dec. 19?

Bob Putman: Even though electors are not all bound, it is unrealistic to expect a different result on Dec. 19 than Donald Trump becoming president. Most of the electors are strong partisans one way or the other, so they are unlikely to throw their vote to the other major party candidate. The concern is not so much for a different winner, but more for some faithless electors throwing their vote to a different member of their party (Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, etc.). We will likely see many more faithless electors this cycle because of the dislike of the two major party candidates. While some will do this, a coalition of hundreds of people of varying ideologies coming together to back a single person, whom the American people did not vote for, is inconceivable.

There is increasing discussion about the fairness of the Electoral College, with some even calling for its elimination. Is change likely?

Bob Putman: The Electoral College is not likely to go away any time soon. This is not the first election in which we have seen one candidate win the Electoral College without the popular vote. It has happened four other times in history, most recently in 2000 as Dexter mentioned earlier. Not much has changed since then. The Electoral College has continued to exist in the United States. I would argue that the Electoral College’s winner-take-all model benefits the existence of the two-party system in the United States. The two parties, who make up most federal and state governments, have a vested interest in keeping it the way it is.

Taylor Phillips: There have been movements to abolish the Electoral College for a long time. There seems to be more discussion now than ever before; however, I don’t see the Electoral College going anywhere in the foreseeable future either. That being said, we have seen the Electoral College override the popular vote twice now in 16 years. I don’t believe we’ll see the complete abolishment of the Electoral College system, but I think we could see a huge movement behind re-evaluating the winner-take-all system as it only benefits the deeply divided partisan system.

Dexter Ridgway: It is difficult to say if the Electoral College will change as a result of this election because it is something that has been a part of the U.S. since its creation. It has allowed for individuals with the proper requisites to be elected president, and deterred any possible tyrant from receiving the highest position of office. It is too early to say if the Electoral College will serve its purpose this time and deliver a strong presidency from our current president-elect and vice president-elect. However, I do believe that since this is one of the largest groups of faithless electors that we’ve seen since 1836, individuals will begin to change the binding laws in states and transition away from a winner-take-all system to a proportional representation system. This would allow for the regions to be properly represented and the popular vote to intertwine with the electoral vote.