November 6, 2012 - Election Day in the United States

It's time, once again, to think about the electoral college.

Presidents and their vice-presidential running mates are the only governmental officials elected by the entire nation. Rather than just comparing the raw vote—how many people voted for this candidate compared to how many voted for that other candidate—candidates win the electoral votes of a particular state by winning the presidential election in that state. It is the total number of electoral votes, not the total number of raw votes, that determines who wins and becomes president.

This means that, instead of winning one big national election, a successful candidate must win many smaller state elections.

States with small populations have a lot fewer electors than large states with large populations. The number of electors of a particular state is the number of senators from that state (and every state gets the same number of senators—two) plus the number of representatives from that state (which depends on the population). 

So Delaware and Alaska have three electoral votes each, Texas has 38, and California has 55 electoral votes.

Why is the presidential election set up this way? Do you think this method is fair? Read on....

Why and when?

The Founding Fathers created the electoral college system in order to make sure that the large states wouldn't have undue control over the presidential elections; another way of saying this is that this system was devised to safeguard the voice of the less populous states.

The first plan to elect U.S. presidents was to have Congress elect the president. (This would be somewhat similar to the British Parliament/Prime Minister system.) However, some of the Founding Fathers thought that the president wouldn't have the proper amount of independence from Congress—in other words, that the president would be under Congressional control.

The Founding Fathers did briefly discuss the idea of direct election—each citizen voting for president directly, and the winner being the guy (so far, it's always been men!) with the most raw votes. James Madison liked this idea but pointed out that southern states wouldn't, because much of their population was made up of non-voting slaves. A lot of compromise over slavery happened during the crafting of the Constitution; it's surprising that the document has served as well as it has, for as long as it has, with as few amendments as it has had, considering!

Note: the Constitution refers to “electors” but not to the “electoral college.” The latter phrase began to be used in the early nineteenth century and appeared in written form in a federal law in 1845.

Good things about the electoral college:
  • In a close election, a recount would have to happen with ALL the ballots in the whole nation, if we went by raw votes. With the electoral college, there is only a recount of votes in the really close states. Recounts are expensive and time-consuming.

  • The electoral college gives more influence to small states, with their different perspectives, and to rural areas than a raw vote count would. It also gives a bit more influence to racial and ethnic minorities, who often live in large cities in populous states and who therefore can tilt all the electoral votes of those states.

  • The electoral college system tends to prevent candidates with only regional support from winning.
  • The electoral college system encourages stability through the two-party system. (Only some people think this is a good thing!)
An analogy... 
What if the World Series of baseball was decided by the raw total of all the runs made in all the games of the Series? 
Let's say that the Giants won six out of seven games but totaled only 10 runs in all seven games. If the Tigers had one freaky game in which they scored 7 runs, and won that one game—would it be a good thing if the Tigers ended up winning the whole series with 11 total points, even though they lost six games and only won one?
In sports, we almost always have a series of small competitions adding up to a large win. A tennis player doesn't win a match because someone tallied up all the points she made in a match, and compared that tally to her opponents. Instead, she has to win more sets than her opponent (and to win a set, she must win more games).

Bad things about the electoral college system:
  • Candidates tend to focus on large swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania and Ohio, almost ignoring states with few electoral votes or states that are “safe” for a particular party.
  • The electoral college system to some extent discourages voter turnout. However, since there are other offices and propositions in any given election, apathy and non-participation seems to me to be a problem largely separated from the whether we use direct voting or the electoral college.

  • It's an unnecessarily complicated system. Many people think that one citizen-one vote makes more sense.
  • Some people think that some of the things on the “good” list above are really bad. For example, some people don't like the fact that the current system favors less populous and more rural states. Some argue that the system makes disadvantages third parties, but others claim that the electoral college system actually improves chances of third-party candidates in some situations.
  • Voter suppression (passing state laws that make it harder for some people to vote) isn't punished by our electoral college system. However, a direct-vote system wouldn't help fight against voter suppression efforts, either....

To learn more...

Kids Discover offers an infographic about the Electoral College.  

Congress for Kids has a page on this system. 

Also on this date:

No comments:

Post a Comment