Three of my daughters attend university in Paris, and one of them brought her French
boyfriend home this summer. During his visit, he asked me how I felt about “not having a direct
vote.” While I felt I had a general understanding of the Electoral College, I found I was unable to
adequately explain the process to him. He followed that question up with: “Why do you have a
popular vote if it doesn’t count,” and “How does the Electoral College work?”
Again, my answers were completely unsatisfactory, and I realized that I didn’t really know
exactly how the president of the United States is elected. My only consolation was the belief
that I’m most likely not alone. Clement then went on to rather articulately explain the French
election process, which is not exactly straightforward either. I was a little embarrassed by my
ignorance, and I promised myself that I would learn how exactly the president of the United
States is elected.
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.
Each state has two senators and therefore receives two electoral votes. Additionally, each
state receives an electoral vote for each congressional district (think of it as a vote for each
congressman in the House of Representatives).
California has by far the most electoral votes with 55. Other states with considerable sway
include Texas with 38, Florida and New York with 29 each, Illinois and Pennsylvania with 20
each, and Ohio with 18. Fifteen states have between three and five electoral votes, while another 22 states have between six and 11. Maine has four electoral votes.
Here’s the important part: Our votes do count. The popular vote determines how the electoral votes will be cast. For example, in the 2008 election, Barack Obama won the popular vote in Maine over John McCain. So as a direct result of the popular vote, Maine’s four electoral votes went to Obama.
Forty-eight of the 50 states and the District of Columbia award electoral votes on a winner- take-all basis. For example, all 55 of California’s electoral votes go to the winner of the state election, even if the margin of victory is only 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.
Maine and Nebraska allow proportional voting, as opposed to the winner-take-all basis. In this
process, one electoral vote is awarded to the winner of each congressional district and the two
senatorial (at-large) votes go to the candidate with the most total votes in the state. A split vote has happened only once. In 2008, Nebraska split its votes, four for McCain and one for Obama.
A candidate must be awarded more than 50 percent of the electoral votes to win the election. There are currently 538 electoral votes, thus 270 is the required amount to win. If no candidate
receives more than 50 percent, the House of Representatives will select the president from among the top three candidates, by a vote in which each state and the District of Columbia casts one vote.
The controversy occurs when a candidate wins one or two large states by a slim margin, but loses by a large majority in several smaller and medium-size states. The “winner-take-all basis” of awarding electoral votes allows a candidate to receive the majority of the electoral votes, while actually losing the popular vote. Many proposals have been made to change this system, but for whatever reasons, none has succeeded.
Several times the winner of the popular vote has lost the election because the other candidate
received more than 50 percent of the electoral votes. It happened in the 1876 election between
Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, in the 1888 election between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, and most recently in the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
The most blatant example of the system failing (depending on your perspective, of course)
was in the 1824 election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Jackson won
the popular vote and the electoral vote but lost the election. Jackson received 99 electoral
votes, but because the electoral votes were spread among four candidates — Adams received
84, William Crawford received 41, and Henry Clay received 37 — Jackson did not receive more than 50 percent of the total electoral votes required to win the election.
Therefore, the election was decided by the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams won the election with 13 states voting for him against seven states for Jackson and four for Crawford.
Here’s an interesting side note: George Washington is the only president to receive 100 percent of the electoral votes, and he did it in both the 1788 and 1792 elections.
It’s not a perfect system, and we may not have a “direct vote,” but the next time someone tells you that your vote doesn’t count, you can say with authority, “It most certainly does!”
Jeff Bergeron lives in Old Town.