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Electoral College 101

Archaic, savvy or silly?


My vague memories of elementary-school history lessons include teachings about the United States as the greatest democracy on earth and the importance of the right of all citizens to vote. A much clearer memory is the day in high school I learned about the convoluted way our president actually gets elected, when we studied the electoral college. I experienced the same feelings of deception as when I learned the Tooth Fairy was not responsible for my small childhood savings.

I learned that under the electoral college system every vote doesn't count, that the weight of a vote depends on where you live and what political party reigns in your state. I was shocked to learn that you don't actually vote for a president when you punch your ballots. If you select Bush/Cheney, you essentially grant permission to other people (called a Republican slate of electors--political folks who have been nominated by the Republicans to represent you) to cast your state's allocated votes on behalf of the Republicans. If you vote for Kerry/ Edwards, you give permission to the Democratic slate of electors to cast your state's allocated votes on behalf of the Democrats. Here's the catch: only all of the Republican electors or all of the democratic electors vote. It's a winner-take-all system.

If the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates receive more popular votes than the Democratic ones in a given state on November 2, then the Republican slate of electors (the people you actually elected) cast all the official, electoral votes for the Republican platform on December 13 and all electoral votes are tallied on January 5. So even if Bush receives just one more popular vote than Kerry in a given state, all of that state's electoral votes go to President Bush.

The winner-take-all approach is used in all states except Nebraska and Maine and renders Republicans in New York or Democrats in Idaho superfluous. Idahoans know our four electoral votes will go to Bush; we are not a "swing state"--states with nearly equal numbers of republicans and democrats--where individual votes actually matter.

In this election, Bush and Kerry are vying to win 270 of the 538 possible electoral votes. Each state's total number of electors is determined by adding the number of representatives in the state (proportionate to the state's population) to the number of senators (always two). California, a large, populous state, has 55 electors while Wyoming has three. In the case of a tie (269 to 269), each member of the House of Representatives would cast a single vote for their platform of choice.

Most of the time, electoral votes directly reflect the popular vote. But the 2000 election showed a split--Bush and Cheney won five more electoral votes (271 to 266) but Gore and Lieberman won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. Of the more than 100 million people who voted in the 2000 presidential election, only 20 million of the votes were ultimately decisive. Many Americans were shocked and outraged when they realized how electoral votes trump popular ones.

Since 2000, 29 states have proposed bills to eliminate the current system. Colorado even has an amendment on its November 2 ballot that would divide electoral votes according to the popular vote. If passed, Amendment 36 would be effective immediately, meaning that if 45 percent of Coloradans voted for Kerry/Edwards, Kerry/Edwards would receive four of Colorado's nine electoral votes instead of none. If this law had been in effect in 2000, Bush would not be in office.

Faith in the electoral college, especially given another close election, is hard to come by. Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson, among others, favor eradication of the electoral college. One West Virginian Republican elector, Richie Robb, has stirred up press for threatening to become a "faithless elector." (Faithless electors vote against their party and face minor penalties for doing so.) To date, no faithless elector has swung an election, but the possibility exists.

In a nutshell, supporters of the electoral college claim it protects small states, supports a federalist, two-party system and enhances minority interests (since minorities tend to be geographically grouped). Opponents counter that the electoral college limits the possibility of electing a third party president, depresses voter turnout and ultimately doesn't reflect the will of the people.

Eliminating the electoral college requires a constitutional amendment and amendments are extremely difficult to pass. But this year's election could add momentum to a growing movement to scrap the electoral college given that a majority of Americans expect this election to be messy, with partisan lawsuits, recounts and other totuous methods of deciphering "voter intent."