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Remember the Electoral College


When you head to the polls this November, you won't actually be voting for a presidential candidate. At least not directly.

A poll released exclusively to the Washington, D.C.-based newspaper The Hill yesterday shows former Vice President Joe Biden’s national lead over President Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential race at 12 points. That advantage is double what it was just months ago. This survey is not an outlier. The former senator from Delaware has a ten-point advantage over the current commander in chief in the RealClearPolitics average of all national presidential election polls. But while the Biden campaign is surely encouraged by these numbers, there is probably one not-so-small detail nagging them: the Electoral College. National polls, like the ones referenced above, predict the outcome of the popular vote. As modern voters learned in 2000 when another former vice president (Al Gore) won the popular vote by more than half a million votes, but lost the Electoral College 271 to 266, the sum total of ballots cast for a presidential candidate is not what actually decides the outcome of the race for the White House. It is the outcome in each individual state that matters.

Voters relearned that lesson in 2016. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earned three million more popular votes than now-President Trump, but lost in an Electoral College landslide, 232 to 306. (The 2000 and 2016 elections actually were not the only ones where there was a mismatch between the popular and Electoral College counts. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and John Quincy Adams also moved into the White House without winning the popular vote.)

Established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is the formal body that elects the president and vice president of the United States. As the historians of the U.S. House of Representatives explain, it means that “when voters go to the polls in a presidential election, they actually are voting for the slate of electors vowing to cast their ballots for that ticket in the Electoral College.”

Each of the 50 U.S. states has as many electors in the College as it has representatives in the U.S. House and senators in the U.S. Senate. Nebraska, for example, has two senators (just like every U.S. state) and three representatives. Therefore, it has five electors. California has 53 representatives and two senators—hence it has 55 electors. And, even though it does not have official representation in the U.S. Congress, in 1961 the District of Columbia was given three electors. There are 538 electors in all, meaning to become president, an individual needs 270 Electoral College votes. (Which is how the election information website 270ToWin.com got its name.)

The Electoral College was born out of a disagreement about how to elect the president. As the History Channel explains it, one group of delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not want Congress to have anything to do with electing the president (separation of powers, after all). Another group strongly opposed the direct election of the president. “Out of those drawn-out debates came a compromise based on the idea of electoral intermediaries,” the History Channel explains.

Who can serve as one of these intermediaries? Well, almost anyone.

According to historians with the National Archives, the U.S. Constitution does not have much to say on the matter, stating simply that “no senator or representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.” After the Civil War, the 14th amendment added that state officials who have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies also were disqualified from serving as electors.

And who selects these electors? You do.

As the National Archives also explains, political parties in each state choose potential electors before the general election and then, on Election Day, each state’s voters cast ballots for their electors.

After Election Day, the individuals lucky enough to be chosen to be electors meet in their individual states to cast their presidential ballots. Then, as U.S. House historians explain, “On January 6 at 1:00 pm before a Joint Session of Congress, the vice president opens the votes from each state in alphabetical order. He [or she] passes the votes to four tellers—two from the House and two from the Senate—who announce the results.” (The January 6 date and time has been in place since the middle of the 20th century, but it can be altered as it was in 1957, 1985, 1989, 1997, 2009, and 2013.)

Most—but not all states—require electors to follow the will of the voters in their state. Some even will fine electors if they do not adhere to the popular vote. But, according to the National Archives, “There is no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states.” (Emphasis added.)

As the Archives also notes, however, “It is rare for electors to disregard the popular vote by casting their electoral vote for someone other than their party's candidate. Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party.” In fact, “Throughout our history as a nation, more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged.”

The 2016 election did see a surge in electors casting ballots opposite to the will of the voters in their respective states. In fact, there were seven so-called faithless electors.

What got into these individuals?

Based on research by CBS News, it seems these electors simply did not like the choices on the ballot. Five of the seven faithless electors were from states that voted for Hillary Clinton. Their votes did not go to Donald Trump, however—in fact most went to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. And the two electors who refused to cast their ballot for Donald Trump didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton either. One voted for former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the other opted for former U.S. House Rep. Ron Paul.

Before 2016, there hadn’t been more than one faithless elector in a presidential year since 1948.

The Electoral College and its process for selecting the president has not changed much throughout the nation’s history. There was one important change early on, however, after the election of America’s third commander in chief.

At the beginning of our union, electors cast their votes without designating whether they were voting for president or vice president. As the Library of Congress explains, Americans quickly found out that this method would not work. In the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each earned 73 elector votes. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives had to break the tie. (Jefferson prevailed.)

Within four years, voters and Congress approved an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 12th amendment, which ensured electors spelled out their choices for president and vice president. (Ties are still settled in the U.S. House.)

U.S. House historians note, “The closest Congress has come to amending the Electoral College since 1804 was during the 91st Congress (1969–1971)” when the House passed a resolution that proposed the direct election of a president and vice president and required a runoff when no candidate received more than 40 percent of the popular vote. That resolution was debated by the Senate, and even was endorsed by President Richard Nixon, but it was set aside when the resolution failed to earn enough votes to overcome a filibuster.

The idea of direct election has been debated publicly since then, but has not been put to a vote in Congress.

So what can we expect of the Electoral College this year? Will we have another situation as we did in 2016, where one candidate “wins” by millions of popular votes, but loses in an Electoral College landslide?

Anything is possible, but as The Hill article mentioned above noted, polls from individual states tell a slightly different story than national surveys. For example, “polls out of Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan also show Biden leading the president, though with narrower margins, raising the prospect the election could tighten with more than four months to go.”

Indeed, according to RealClearPolitics, Biden is up only one point in Michigan while President Trump leads by one point in the latest poll from Iowa.

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