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 Backgrounder: The Electoral Process
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Understanding The Electoral College

October 16, 2000
Web posted at: 5:55 PM EDT (2155 GMT)

What is the Electoral College and How does it Operate?

Explaining The Mathematics of the EC

There are 538 total Electors (individuals) in the contemporary EC. The 538 is equal to 100 U.S. Senators plus 435 members of the House of Representatives plus 3 from the District of Columbia (compliments of the 23rd Amendment). So, a state's electoral votes are equal to its total representation in Congress (Senators plus Representatives). Accordingly, the more populous states have a greater number of electoral votes. California, containing the most people, has 54 electoral states (52 representatives + 2 U.S. Senators = 54), where, by comparison, North Dakota has 3 electoral votes (1 House Representative plus 2 U.S. senators). As you can see, the fewest number of Electors any state can have is 3 (Alaska, Delaware, Vermont, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota all share this distinction). It follows that the typical presidential candidate will want to invest most of his or her campaign resources in the largest electoral-vote states.

For any presidential nominee to be elected, he or she must obtain at least a majority of 538, or the magic number of 270. If 270 is not reached (a popular third-party candidate could conceivably siphon off enough electoral votes in the future to deny either the Republican or Democratic nominee a majority of Electors; this almost happened in 1968 when George Wallace won 46 Electoral votes), then the election's outcome is determined by Congress. The House would select the president, from the top three choices if necessary, by a majority of the states (each state delegation would have one vote, with 26 needed of the 50 for selection), and the Senate would choose a vice-president from the top two choices by majority vote. Each senator has one vote. Only two elections have gone into the House (1800 and 1824) and the Senate has not chosen a vice-president since 1836. This scenario has obviously not occurred in the modern era, although it is by no means impossible given the growing appeal of third parties and the weakening of the two major parties.

Suggested Reforms of the EC

Second, there are those reformers who wish to keep the current EC system intact. However, to prevent the scenario described above, they would award a"bonus" sum of 102 electoral votes (2 per 50 states plus 2 from D.C.) automatically to the candidate with the most popular votes. The candidate would have to obtain 321 electoral votes (electoral votes actually won plus the bonus). If not, a run-off would ensue (a liability to critics).

Third, political experts pose the problem of the "faithless Elector." While Electors are pledged to support a particular ticket, they cannot be legally prevented from repudiating that pledge during the December balloting (Electors have changed their votes in the twentieth century presidential elections of 1948, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1988). For example, if the final Electoral College result in a future, hypothetical election were 270 for candidate "A" and 268 for candidate "B," then one Elector, by switching his or her vote, could create a 269-269 tie, hence forcing the stalemated election to be considered by Congress. If the EC were abolished, this danger would simply disappear.

The Arguments of EC Supporters

Proponents of the current EC system argue against its abolition or major reform. They view the EC as unifying the nation by forcing a presidential candidate to gain support from all regions of the nation. In addition, the EC system is democratic, in that it gives heavily populated urban centers greater electoral power. Also, in a very close election, the influence of the small states remains important. Furthermore, the preservation of the two-party system (and political stability) is assured by keeping the EC intact. Under the EC, third, or splinter, parties have a very difficult time either winning the presidency or forcing the election into the House and Senate. In conclusion, the Electoral College has worked effectively, with only a few exceptions, for more than two centuries. No presidential election in over 170 years has been decided by the House of Representatives. Hence, advocates see no reason to tamper with a design that has stood the test of time, and one which is clearly superior to any suggested reform.

**A "majority" is always more than 50%. A "plurality" refers to the greatest number of popular votes, but not necessarily a majority. Note that a presidential candidate receiving either a majority or plurality of popular votes in a specific state will still win all of that state's electoral votes under the current EC arrangement.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. How is the number 538 derived in the current Electoral College?

2. How could the EC system conceivably push the presidential election decision into Congress?

3. Why is it so difficult for third parties to win sizable numbers of electoral votes?

4. What is meant by the popular vote/electoral vote linkage?

5. What post-election events relating to the EC occur in December and January?

6. What EC reforms have been suggested? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

7. How can the EC be defended?

LESSON PLAN: