A Guide to the Electoral College

by Lauren Pudvah

December 16, 2016

Cover Photo Credits

In the days following the election, it has been hard to avoid news articles discussing the Electoral College. Some articles have been informative explaining how the system works. Others have insisted if you just sign a petition Hillary Clinton can become the next President of the United States. Is there some loophole that could make Clinton the next president? And how exactly does the Electoral College work? This blog post will discuss the Electoral College process, how Americans feel about it, and if Clinton could become the next POTUS.

What is the Electoral College?

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the most debated topic was how the president would be elected. Some politicians wanted Congress to elect the President but others wanted to limit governmental power and use a national popular vote. At the core of this decision is the choice of authority or individualism. People immigrated to the New World leaving behind oppression from feudalism or religion to start a better life. They wanted limited government and favored individualism.  Article II Section 1 lays out the Electoral College, a weighted voting system delegating each state a specific number of electoral votes proportional to its population.  The number of electoral votes is equal to a state’s representation in Congress. Our current Electoral College has 538 electors – 535 for total congressional members and 3 additional electors for Washington D.C. Candidates do not win the presidency with a majority of the popular vote. Instead, they must secure 270 Electoral College votes to win the presidency . The founding fathers left power to the state legislatures to decide how to choose electors but did define who cannot be an elector. Electors cannot be Senators, Representatives, or hold “an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States.” They also cannot have rebelled against the United States or given any form of aid to U.S. enemies.

How electors get selected varies by state, but each political party has a slate of electors. These electors are usually loyal to the party and have a personal or political tie to the party’s presidential candidate. The slate that will vote for the presidential candidate is chosen by the voters on election day. When you vote you are voting for that party’s slate of electors for the Electoral College. The only two states with a varying process are Nebraska and Maine. Both states distribute their electoral votes by awarding one to the majority winner of each congressional district and two additional electoral votes to the candidate that wins the majority of the statewide popular vote.  The Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the selected electors meet in their respective state capitals to cast votes for President and Vice President. The votes are sealed and sent to the President of the Senate who is also the current Vice President. The official electoral votes get read before both houses of Congress on January 6th. The winners of the Electoral College become the new President and Vice President and are sworn into office on January 20th. To answer a question about why our government is the way it is, it is best to keep in mind people who first came to America. These people immigrated to the New World to start a better life craving limited authority and individualism.

So the founding fathers thought this was the best way to elect the president but how do Americans feel?

It can be argued that the Electoral College System can give a disproportionate amount of power to swing states. It forces candidates to spend time and money campaigning in only a select number of states which are most likely to sway the Electoral College. This makes a lot of Americans feel their vote does not matter. From 1967 to 1980 Gallup found that the majority of survey respondents were in favor of abolishing the Electoral College. After the election of 1968, Gallup found that 81% of Americans were in favor of abolishing the system. The same trend followed the highly contentious election of Bush over Gore. 61% of Americans reported being in favor of abolishing the Electoral College and using a national popular vote instead. When analyzed by party affiliation, only 44% of Republicans favored using a national popular vote but 73% of Democrats were in favor. In 2011, ten years after the Bush Gore Presidential race, Gallup found that 62% respondents still favored amending the Constitution to change the electoral process. The support was found to be bipartisan again with 53% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats in favor Respondents to these questions have favored moving to a popular vote consistently since 1967.

So if most Americans want to elect the President based on popular vote, could Clinton become our next President?

This is unlikely because the popular vote does not matter. A change in how the United States elects a president would require an amendment to the Constitution. Over the last 200 years over 700 proposals to change the process have been introduced in Congress but none have been enacted. With the upcoming unified Republican government, an amendment to change the process is dubious. Although the constitution does not require an elector to vote for the presidential candidate of their affiliation, no presidential election results have ever changed due to a “faithless elector” (Karambelas). Historically 99% of electors have voted for the candidate they pledged to. The electors usually hold leadership positions in their party and are chosen because of their loyal service. Because of their position, it is improbable they will vote against their state’s popular vote to elect the candidate of the opposing party. The loser of the Electoral College is even less probable to win the presidency as 26 states require electors by state law or pledges to vote for their assigned candidate. In the 2016 election, 7 out of the 11 swing states require their electors to vote for the candidate that won their state’s popular vote. Clinton lost the swing states of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. All these swing states’ electors are prevented by state law to vote for anyone other than Trump. The elector selection process and some state laws make it extremely unlikely that Clinton could be president in January.

The Electoral College has been a highly contested process since the time of the founding fathers. The majority of American people support the abolishment of the Electoral College and the use of a national popular vote instead. Despite the support, no proposal in the last 200 years has ever made it through Congress. Perhaps one day the United States will elect our Presidents using a national popular vote, but it will not be in 2017.

 Lauren Pudvah is a 1st-year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.