By Jonathan Peters
In light of the presidential election on Tuesday, many have been up in arms about Donald Trump winning the presidency while Hillary Clinton received the majority popular vote.
This reminded Americans all around the country that it is not about winning each individual citizen’s ballot, but rather it’s a game to win 270 votes from the 538 members of the Electoral College, a group of mystical beings who represent each state that the average American only hears about once every four years.
Okay, it is not that dramatic, but they do hold a large amount of power regulated only by provisions within the Constitution.
The system was put into place by the founding fathers’ fear of the word “democracy.” The United States prides itself on the fact that the country is an equality driven democracy, where we want everyone’s voice to be heard on social issues and political action. However, in practice we are actually a republic, a governmental system where people are represented by elected officials and those officials make the decisions based on the views of their constituents.
It is hard to understand where things come into play unless you take a brief look at history. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, an elephant in the room had to be addressed: equal representation for the people and each state. This lead to the “Great Compromise” drafted up by Benjamin Franklin where Congress would be a bicameral legislator, making the House of Representative members be based on state population and the Senate consist of two representatives from each state.
The number of electors each state receives in the Electoral College is based on the number of House members they have plus their two seats in the Senate. This means that each state can have a minimum of three electors to represent them, like when Hillary won Maine and gained only three votes.
Article 2, section 1, clause 2 of the Constitution forbids Senators and members of the House of Representatives from also serving as electors for their state. Electors are nominated by each party’s conventions from state to state when we cast our vote during the primary elections. This allows the newly elected officials to vote for the candidate that the majority of people in their state wanted.
The System in Practice
Now here is where the fun comes in.
Many states are predictable in their voting patterns. It is no surprise when California, who holds 55 Electoral College members, voted for Hillary Clinton because it has a history of almost always voting for the Democratic candidate. The same thing goes for Texas, which holds 36 electoral votes, almost always voting for the Republican candidate in history.
The danger comes in when historically unpredictable states with large electoral numbers come into play, like Florida who has 29 electoral votes but can never make up its mind whether it is a “red” or “blue” state. Bill Clinton won Florida for his presidency. So did George Bush who lost the national popular vote to Al Gore. Then in 2008, Florida had cast its vote for Barack Obama. Now Donald Trump won the state, which was his pathway to victory, according to both CNN and CBSN. Now do you see why it is called a “swing state?”
According to Richard Hamm, a history professor at the University at Albany, the states follow a “winner-take all system.” States give all their electoral votes to one party if the majority of the state votes a specific way, with the exception of Nebraska and Maine who sometimes choose to split up their electoral votes if the state doesn’t completely vote one way or the other.
This begs the question, “does my vote even matter?” If a republican votes in a predominantly democratic state, all electoral votes will still go to the democratic candidate and vice versa. When a person votes, they aren’t actually voting for the presidential office, according Hamm. They are actually voting on which candidate their elector will pledge to vote for.
What the Future Holds
On Dec. 19, the Electoral College casts their official votes which determine who serves as President and Vice President. And yes, electors have the constitutional right to go against their states’ wishes and vote however they choose. This is an extremely rare case and those people are given the name “faithless electors.”
So in theory, the electors from different states could come together and not vote for Donald Trump. Many could go against their states’ wishes and vote for different parties. Bernie Sanders could even be elected as president if 270 Electoral College members put him down on their ballots in December. Though if they did, many would be angered that the person pledging to represent their state went against their state’s majority vote.
The idea of your vote going through an extra filter is what makes this whole system such a touchy subject for people.
“The Electoral College is such an obsolete system where the loser can win,” UAlbany senior Brandon Weiss said. “It makes it into a political game of who is the president for states like Florida and Ohio [swing states]. New York’s vote doesn’t matter.”
New York State has historically almost always voted for the democratic candidate; Hillary Clinton won 29 electoral votes from New York alone.
Hamm agrees that there is change needed in the voting system, especially since the old method is rooted in the government’s lack of trust that American citizens have the ability to make important decisions on their own.
“We are on the verge of self-driving cars, and we are using an electoral system based in the 18th Century,” he said.