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What the heck is the Electoral College?

What a long strange trip it’s been. After a contentious and, at least in some circles, surprising election we are once again staring the oddities of our electoral system in the face. I’m talking, of course, about the Electoral College. In shades of 2000, the candidate winning the popular vote did not win the presidency leaving many Americans not only upset at the results but disenchanted over the value of their vote.

This isn’t to imply your vote doesn’t matter; on the contrary, it certainly does. However, the Electoral College exists as a sort of anachronism in our representative democracy. An often neglected part of our constitution until blockbuster events like the 2000 election, Bush v. Gore. So let’s give it the attention it deserves now that it’s been pushed back into the spotlight.

What’s the Electoral College and How Does it Work?

The Electoral College is written into Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution:

“[The President] together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows: Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress”

The finer details have been amended throughout the years, but the general guidelines remain relatively unchanged. A group of individuals, 538 if you’re counting, broken out by state, decide the presidency. These electors act much as our standard representatives. Electors will typically vote along with the district they represent, although they are not bound by law to do so. The candidate who receives the majority of electors, at least 270, wins.

On a state level, each contest is a winner take all affair; with only Maine and Nebraska allowing for a split share of electoral votes. This means that any size majority can claim a state’s electoral votes.

The intent of the college is, in many ways, to ensure that single areas of the country do not have an outsize influence on the entirety of national politics. Otherwise, California and New York could potentially control the states in the heart of our country. While that may appeal to politically active individuals on the coasts, it’s probably less exciting for your average Iowan.

Who Are Electors?

Now that you know what electors do the next logical question becomes “who are these people?” Electors are probably more accurately described by what they are not. Specifically, electors are not state representatives, senators, or anyone holding political office in the United States. Constitutionally, those are the only requirements, aside from fringe scenarios involving treason.

Electors are, however, nominated and appointed by sitting political parties. Generally, each party will nominate a panel of electors and decide in their own committees who is chosen. This results in multiple electors in each election district, one from each party. Who is ultimately chosen as an elector is decided by the voting population. By casting a vote for a specific presidential candidate you are also casting a vote for the elector nominated by the candidate’s party. Since electors are not bound to follow the public vote tying them together with their candidate is a simple way to lessen the chances of “rogue electors.”

What Happens When The Electoral Votes Disagree With the Popular Vote?

Here we are again and, as you’ve already seen, the Electoral College is the single deciding factor in our presidential elections. While the popular vote typically aligns with the college, it is ultimately irrelevant in deciding the winner.

How does that happen?

As previously stated, members of the Electoral College will almost always vote with the majority in their district. Despite this, however, discrepancies can arise because the college can make the margin of victory in most states irrelevant. For example, if everyone in California were eligible to vote and did so for a single candidate that individual would receive over thirty million votes and all of California’s 55 electoral votes. Conversely, if a candidate won California by a single vote they’d also receive all 55 delegates with only half the vote number. This allows for situations where one candidate can rack up blowout wins in some populated states but narrow losses in the so-called battleground states and thus losing the electoral battle.

Such was the case with Secretary Clinton: large wins in California and New York but with narrow losses in states like Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The results of which were huge electoral wins for President-Elect Trump while ultimately being just behind in the popular vote.

Rage Against the Machine

There’s been a lot of melodrama surrounding Tuesday’s vote, but this isn’t the first time the Electoral College has broken with the voting public, in fact, it’s happened four times prior. In 1824 John Quincy Adams was elected over the populist Andrew Jackson; Jackson would return to win the presidency in the 1828 election. Rutherford B. Hayes prevailed over Samuel J. Tilden in 1876’s, especially bitter election. Incumbent Grover Cleveland lost his re-election bid to Benjamin Harrison in 1888. And last, but not least, George W. Bush prevailed over Al Gore in 2000, ultimately claiming his own popular vote victory by a margin of five to four.

Just as it’s happened before, this will certainly not be the last election decided by the Electoral College if the current system remains in place. Whether or not that’s an issue likely depends on what side you were on; but for all the divisiveness over the past few months, and this equally split electoral finale, it can help to remember the words of Winston Churchill, “indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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