Scott Stilson on Electoral Votes

Scott Stilson, Library Supervisor explains the election process. Photo provded by SPSCC Library.

If you listened to all the electoral blather that gets thrown at you just before a national election, you would think that all you needed to do was decide who to vote for, cast your vote by mail or on election day, and then whoever wins the vote becomes president. This isn’t exactly true.

The fact is that most of the Founding Fathers hated the idea of “the mob” voting for a president. They didn’t feel it was in the country’s interest for “just anyone” to be allowed to vote for such an important personage. So they created an institution that has been consistently controversial whenever politics required it to be noticed: the Electoral College.

This is how it works. Each state chooses a number of electors equal to the total number of their representatives and senators. Washington, D.C. also gets three. Each state decides how their electors are chosen. The electors themselves are usually chosen by each political party, and most states have a law that states: “the electors of whichever party wins the state popular vote gets to send in their votes.” In mid-December the electors of each state meet in their respective state capitals and formally vote for their candidate. There are a total of 538 electoral votes, so to win a candidate has to get 270.

When January rolls around the new Congress meets in Washington, D.C., and their first order of business is to announce the electoral vote for president and vice president. Usually the electoral vote results match up with the popular vote results, but occasionally there is a problem, usually when the popular vote is very close. This is when the Electoral College gets noticed. The last time this happened was in 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote because of a highly controversial court decision regarding Florida’s electoral votes.

What if the electoral vote is tied? The chances of this happening are minimal, but a tie certainly leads to some bizarre political maneuvering. In the case of a tie, the House of Representatives chooses the president, but each state delegation only has one vote. This would most likely give the Republicans a majority, so Romney would no doubt be elected president.

In the Senate, however, each senator has one vote, and if the Democrats maintain a majority, Biden would be elected vice president. Even stranger, if the Democrats lose a few seats in the Senate, and there’s a 50-50 split, Biden would break the tie by electing himself as VP, or maybe even vote for the other guy. Once again the Electoral College would be noticed, and not in a good way.

Since the Electoral College is written into the Constitution, it would usually take a constitutional amendment to get rid of it. But since the states are given the power to decide how electors are chosen there is a simpler solution.

Nine states (including Washington) have passed the National Popular Vote Law. This law requires each state’s electors to vote for whoever wins the national popular vote. A lot of people like this law because the candidates would not have to campaign in individual states.
Since the only number that mattered was the national popular vote, campaigns would be truly national because every vote, no matter where, would count. The Electoral College would never need to be noticed again.