by Kim Pederson…….
Many Americans may still operate under the mistaken impression that we elect our presidents. We do not. The US Electoral College does. I was reminded of this while reading Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States, which describes how our president and vice president are to be elected.
According to our Constitution,
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 Congress.
It goes on to instruct that these electors meet and cast their votes for president and vice president, “of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.” They then send their votes to the President of the Senate (the vice president in other words), who counts them. The person receiving the most votes becomes president. The person receiving the second most votes becomes the vice president, which means that two people running against each other can both “win.” This happened in the 1796 election when John Adams was elected president and his opponent Thomas Jefferson became vice president. (Wouldn’t it be interesting if Hillary or Bernie became president and Donald or Ted vice president or vice versa?) Section 1 makes no mention of a popular vote.
In every presidential election, the news media tries to explain the workings of the Electoral College but I wonder how many people pay attention or understand. The media certainly does not tell us why we have the college. The answer is “slavery.” I was shocked to discover this, just as I was shocked to discover the contents of Article I, Section 9. To elucidate how this came about, the federal government’s webpage on the college explains,
The founding fathers established [the Electoral College] in the Constitution as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens.
The compromise was supposedly necessary for this reason:
Some delegates, including James Wilson and James Madison, preferred popular election of the executive. Madison acknowledged that while a popular vote would be ideal, it would be difficult to get consensus on the proposal given the prevalence of slavery in the South:
“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.”*
So there you have it. This is why a candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win a presidential election. This is also why a candidate can win the popular vote, as Al Gore did in 2000, and lose the election. The electors selected in each state pledge to vote for the candidate who receives the most popular votes in their state. (They are not required to do this, however, which brings to mind some interesting scenarios.) If no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, then the House of Representatives elects the president and the Senate elects the vice president, one vote per each state delegation (more interesting scenarios).
So who are the electors (and where do they tend bar, as they saying goes)? A bigger question is how do they become electors? Through cronyism, of course (big surprise). Each state’s political parties choose the electors for their candidates, so each presidential candidate has his or her own slate of electors. When the candidates win, their electors also win and get to cast their votes. So, in essence, when we vote in a presidential election, we are voting for a group of faceless people who then turn around and elect the president. Yikes. What a country!
One wonders (at least I do and others have) why we still have the Electoral College.** Slavery is long gone. Perhaps now the people should really elect our leader directly. It will take a constitutional amendment to make this happen. Anyone want to start the movement? Anyone?
*As a side note, the small states favored the electoral college idea because they feared the big populous states would have too much power over elections.
**If you have some time, read about some of the pros and cons on abolishing the college here.
Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.