As the 2000 presidential election demonstrated vividly, Americans do not elect the US President through a direct nation-wide vote. The Presidential election is decided by the combined results of 50 States plus Washington, DC. The winner of each state’s election gets all of that state's votes in the Electoral College (except in Maine and Nebraska, where votes can be split). State elections decide which candidate receives the State's electoral votes. For example, California’s 55 electoral votes go to the winner of the State’s election, even if the margin of victory is a single vote.
The Electoral College system was devised by the founders of the United States as part of their plan to share power between the States and the national government. Under the Federal system adopted in the Constitution, the nation-wide popular vote has no legal significance. As a result, it is possible that the electoral votes awarded on the basis of State elections could produce a different result than the nation-wide popular vote (Al Gore can tell you about that). Nevertheless, the individual citizen's vote is important to the outcome of each State election.
In the early 1800s, the term “Electoral College” was adopted as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for President. It was first written into Federal law in 1845.
The Constitution and the 12th Amendment refer to “electors”. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton refers to the process of selecting the Executive, and refers to “the people of each State (who) shall choose a number of persons as electors”. The concept of “electors” is copied from the Holy Roman Empire. An elector was one of a number of princes of the various German states within the Holy Roman Empire who had a right to participate in the election of the German king, who generally was crowned as emperor (how ironic).
The term “college” refers to a group of people that act as a unit, as in the College of Cardinals who advise the Pope and vote in papal elections in the Catholic Church.
The Electoral College has 538 electoral votes, one for each of the 435 congressional representatives plus one for each of the 100 senators plus 3 for Washington DC. The winner needs 270 votes to become US President. Of course a mathematical probability exits for a 269-vote tie, but it has yet to occur. The distribution of electoral votes among the States can vary every 10 years depending on the results of the United States Census and state populations. The top 5 states with highest electoral votes in the 2004 presidential election are California 55, Texas 34, New York 31, Florida 27 and Illinois 21.
One of the primary functions of the Census is to reapportion the 435 members of the House of Representatives among the States, based on the current population. The reapportionment of the House determines the division of electoral votes among the States. In the Electoral College, each State gets one electoral vote for each of its Representatives in the House, and one electoral vote for each of its two Senators.
The process for selecting electors varies throughout the United States. Generally, the political parties nominate electors at their State party conventions or by a vote of the party's central committee in each State. Electors are often selected to recognize their service and dedication to their political party. They may be State elected officials, party leaders, or persons who have a personal or political affiliation with the Presidential candidate, depending on the procedure in each State.
Many proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. There have been more proposals for Constitutional amendments on changing the Electoral College than on any other subject. The American Bar Association has criticized the Electoral College as “archaic” and “ambiguous”. Third parties seem to be most adversely affected by the Electoral College system. For example, Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote nationwide in 1992, but he did not win a single electoral vote. He was not particularly strong in any one state.
Any candidate who wins a majority of the popular vote has a good chance of winning in the Electoral College, but there are no guarantees (see the results of the 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000 elections).
Will the 2004 election be another example?
About Abtin Assadi is member of the board of directors at Bay Area Iranian American Voter Association baivoter.org.