late-1960s through the ’80s, Republicans were convinced that they had a
permanent lock on the Electoral College. The Sun Belt was rising, traditionally
Democratic states were losing population, and Republicans won five of six
presidential elections beginning in 1968. Democrats complained that this archaic
system was a terrible and undemocratic way to choose the country’s executive.
They were right, but they were ignored.
Now the demographic pendulum is swinging toward the Democrats. Young voters,
Hispanics and a more active African-American electorate added states like
Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia to President Obama’s winning coalition
in the past two elections, and suddenly Republicans are the ones complaining
about a broken system.
They’re right, too, just as the Democrats were a generation ago. The Electoral
College remains a deeply defective political mechanism no matter whom it
benefits, and it needs to be abolished.
We say that in full knowledge that the college may be tilting toward the kinds
of candidates we tend to support and provided a far more decisive margin for Mr.
Obama earlier this month than his showing in the popular vote. The idea that a
voting method might convey benefits to one side or another, in fact, is one of
the strongest arguments against it.
There should be no structural bias in the presidential election system, even if
population swings might oscillate over a long period of decades. If Democrats
win a string of elections, it should be because their policies and their
candidates appeal to a majority of the country’s voters, not because supporters
are clustered in enough states to get to 270 electoral votes. Republicans should
broaden their base beyond a shrinking proportion of white voters not simply to
win back Colorado, but because a more centrist outlook would be good for the
The problems with the Electoral College — born in appeasement to slave states —
have been on display for two centuries; this page called it a “cumbrous and
useless piece of old governmental machinery” in 1936, when Alf Landon won 36
percent of the popular vote against Franklin Roosevelt but received only 8 of
the 538 electoral votes.
But 76 years later, the system continues to calcify American politics. As Adam
Liptak of The Times recently wrote, this year’s candidates campaigned in only 10
states after the conventions, ignoring the Democratic states on the West Coast
and Northeast and the Republican ones in the South and the Plains. The number of
battleground states is shrinking, and turnout in the other states is lower. The
undemocratic prospect of a president who loses the popular vote is always
present (it’s happened three times), as is the potential horror show of a tie
vote that is decided in Congress.
The last serious consideration of a constitutional amendment to abolish the
college, in 1970, was filibustered by senators from small states who feared
losing their disproportionate clout. The same thing would probably happen today,
even though Republicans (who tend to dominate those states) are increasingly
skeptical of the college.
The best method of moving toward direct democracy remains the National Popular
Vote plan, under which states agree to grant their electoral votes to the ticket
that gets the most popular votes around the country. Legislators in eight states
and the District of Columbia (representing 132 electoral votes) have agreed to
do so; the plan would go into effect when states totaling 270 electoral votes
Until then, new generations of voters will continue to find themselves appalled
by the system left to them by their populist-fearing ancestors. An 18-year-old
voter in California and one in Oklahoma will have much in common when they
realize they are each being ignored, and when they realize there is something
their lawmakers can do about it.
The U.S. Electoral College was established in the Constitution as a compromise
between electing a president by a vote in Congress and by popular vote of
citizens. Here are some facts about the Electoral College:
* The Electoral College, which is not a place but a process, consists of 538
electors. To win the presidency, a candidate must win at least 270 electors.
* The number of electors equals the number of lawmakers in Congress - 435 in the
House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate, plus three for the District of
Columbia. Each state's allotment of electors equals its number of
representatives in the House plus one for each of its two senators.
* Most states have a winner-take-all system for awarding electors. The
presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in the state gets all of the
state's electors. Maine and Nebraska have a variation of "proportional
representation" that can result in a split of their electors between the
* Critics say the Electoral College does not meet the original intent because a
candidate can lose the nationwide popular vote and still win the election by
winning the right combination of states. That happened most recently in the
controversial election of 2000 when Democrat Al Gore got the most votes but
Republican George W. Bush won the presidency. Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes in
1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888 also won in the Electoral College despite
losing the popular vote.
* There is no constitutional requirement that electors vote according to the
results of the popular vote, although some states require it.
* The electors meet in their states in December and cast their votes for
president and vice president.
* If no presidential candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, the election goes to
the House of Representatives, with each state having one vote.
The House has decided two presidential elections - that of Thomas Jefferson in
1800 and John Quincy Adams in 1824.
The Senate would elect the vice president, with each senator casting one vote.
That raises the possibility of a president and vice president from different
* The biggest Electoral College prizes are California, with 55; Texas, with 38;
and New York and Florida, each with 29. California and New York are considered
reliably Democratic, Texas reliably Republican and Florida is a battleground
state that could go either way.
* Among the other important swing states this year, Ohio has 18 votes, Virginia
13, Wisconsin 10, Colorado 9, Nevada 6, Iowa 6 and New Hampshire 4.
* The system explains why candidates tend to spend a disproportionate amount of
time and money on trying to secure the battleground states. It also means that
what appears to be a tight race in national opinion polls may be less close when
viewed state by state.
SOURCES: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Reuters.
(Reuters) - The Electoral College, not the popular vote, actually elects the
president of the United States. Here are some facts about the Electoral College:
* There are 538 members of the Electoral College, allotted to each of the 50
states and the District of Columbia based on their representation in the U.S.
Congress. The smallest states have three members while the largest state,
California, has 55. Washington, D.C., which has no voting representation in
Congress, has three, the same as the smallest state.
* It takes 270 votes to win election. The electors are pledged to one candidate
or the other but there is no federal law requiring them to vote that way. There
have been several incidents in which so-called faithless electors have voted for
someone other than the candidate to whom they were pledged.
* In 48 states and the district, the candidate who wins the popular vote wins
all of the state's electors. Nebraska and Maine have a proportional system of
* Electors, who are picked by the respective political parties, make two
selections -- for president and for vice president. They may not vote for two
candidates from their own state.
* Because a candidate could run up a big vote count in some states but lose
others by narrow margins, the winner of the popular vote might not have the most
electoral votes. The Electoral College has three times picked the candidate who
lost the popular vote -- Republicans Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison
in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000.
* The Electoral College meets in each state to cast its votes on a Monday early
in December following the November popular election. The votes are then tallied
in a joint session of Congress on January 6 of the following year.
* If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of
Representatives chooses among the top three candidates with each state having
only one vote. If no vice presidential candidate receives a majority, the Senate
decides between the top two candidates.
* The House has twice decided the outcome of the presidential race -- in the
1800 and 1824 elections. The Senate decided the vice presidency once, in the
* This unique system was the result of a compromise by the writers of the U.S.
Constitution in the 18th century between those who wanted direct popular
election and those who wanted state legislatures to decide. One fear was that at
a time before political parties, the popular vote would be diluted by voting for
an unwieldy amount of candidates.