3-Minute Civics: An Electoral College refresher

For the Monitor
Published: 10/11/2020 7:00:33 AM

On Nov. 3, we will have a presidential election and the vast majority of us will not be voting for a president. No, I’m not talking about voter turnout. I’m talking about our voting system: the Electoral College. I thought as we approach this very important election it would be good to have a refresher on how it works and why we have it.

Let’s start with how it works.

Each state gets a number of presidential electors that is equal to the number of congressional districts and senators that the state has. For example, since New Hampshire has two congressional districts and two senators, we have four electoral votes. California, the largest state, has 55 electors because it has 53 congressional districts and the two senators.

The parties that have candidates on the ballot for president each choose their own slate of electors. So, in New Hampshire the Democrats choose four people to be their electors and the Republicans choose four different people to be their electors. When we vote on Election Day, we are not voting directly for a presidential candidate, but rather we are voting for which group of electors gets empowered to cast electoral votes for the presidency. The party that wins the state popular vote has its slate of electors cast the official vote for the president (and vice president) in mid-December and then the official count is completed by the Senate at the beginning of January.

Here’s a breakdown of the numbers so you know what to look for on election night and likely the days or weeks that follow because mail-in ballots may lead to a slower final tally.

In the United States there are 435 congressional districts and 100 senators. The 23rd Amendment gives the District of Columbia three electoral votes for a total of 538 electors. In order to win the electoral college, you need a majority, which is one more than one half. So, the magic number to win is 270.

With a couple of exceptions (Nebraska and Maine) electors are allocated by the states on a winner-take-all basis. So, if you win New Hampshire by just one vote, you still get all four electoral votes. This is why we can sometimes have one candidate get more popular votes nationally, but still lose in the Electoral College. The candidate who lost in the Electoral College likely lost by small margins in several states and won by large margins in the states he/she won.

This is what happened in 2016 when Hillary Clinton had about 3 million more votes nationally than Donald Trump, but still lost the electoral vote. Trump’s margin of victory in three key states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan – totaled just under 80,000 votes collectively while Clinton won several states by larger margins. For example she won California by well over 4 million votes.

There are many more issues with the Electoral College, such as its impact on where campaigning occurs (swing states), the unequal voting power it creates as small states are advantaged by it, and the fact that electors are not always required to vote the will of the majority (sometimes referred to as “faithless electors”).

There is also the potential that no candidate will win in the Electoral College, and if that happens, the backup system is pretty messy and could lead to no final resolution.

So, why do we have this system?

When the Framers were creating the Constitution, they did not have a lot of faith in the people. George Mason summed up the attitude of many at the time when he said, “It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate [the president] to the people, as it would, to refer a trial of colours to a blind man.”

So, while the Framers did want some democracy, at the same time they really didn’t trust it. This led them to create a system that could act to protect society from the peoples’ lack of knowledge or wisdom.

There was also a more pragmatic reason for the Electoral College. There had been a very divisive debate over slavery and representation of states that had resulted in the ugly three-fifths compromise. By using congressional districts and Senate seats to determine the number of electors for each state, the Electoral College incorporated that compromise and so the issue did not have to be renegotiated.

The reason we still have the Electoral College today is that it would take a constitutional amendment to change it. Amending the Constitution is always hard, but because smaller states and generally Republican candidates benefit from the system it seems unlikely there will ever be support from the required three-quarters of the states to ratify an amendment.

There is one way that we could move to a de facto popular vote for the presidency. The Constitution leaves it to the states to decide how they select their electors. Several states have signed on to the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact,” which calls for states to use the national popular vote (instead of their own state vote) to determine their electors, but this is triggered only if there are enough states that agree to do this to reach the 270 vote majority.

As of this writing 15 states and the District of Columbia have signed on and their vote total is 196. If they can find enough states to garner another 74 electoral votes, we would have, in effect, a national popular vote choose the president.

(Dan Marcus teaches Civics at John Stark Regional High School. He lives in Concord.)

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